By John Rose
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Trials of the Diaspora

This article is over 12 years, 4 months old
Anthony Julius, Oxford University Press, £25
Issue 346

Leon Trotsky is an occasional surprise witness in this book. His masterpiece, the book 1905, is used as a powerful testimony to anti-Semitism’s irrationality as well as its capacity to turn Jew-hatred into an epidemic, both pogromist and murderous.

Trotsky is called up again providing the guidelines for communists in pre-war British Mandate Palestine. But here Julius drags along with his scholarship half-truth and evasion. The half-truth here is that Trotsky did indeed condemn the anti-Semitism in the Arab riots of 1929. On the same page the Socialist Workers Party’s Jewish founder, Tony Cliff, who was brought up in Palestine, is cited making a similar point. The evasive, but barely concealed, intention here is to link anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism.

What we are not told is that the Arab riots were a reaction against Zionist colonisation. That Zionism is unambiguously a reactionary, colonial and racist enterprise was made very clear by the Bolsheviks at the 4th Congress of the Communist International in 1922. Communists support Arabs in their struggle against Zionism, but if the Arabs have a reactionary leadership then communists should work with the progressive minority of Arab workers and intellectuals to change that leadership. This is the principle that Cliff began to develop then and the SWP follows now.

This is a huge book, 800 pages with 200 pages of footnotes. Let’s acknowledge its genuine scholarship. Over half is about anti-Semitism in England before the advent of Zionism. It has a detailed discussion of the expulsion of Jews from England in the 13th century.

Julius’s arguments about the anti-Semitism of English literature, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens, cannot be explored here, though they deserve to be. His innovative use of James Joyce’s Jewish character Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, arguably the 20th century’s greatest novel, as a counter to Shylock and Fagin, is a pleasure to read. Bloom has shifting, multiple identities including a cosmopolitan, “universal” personality.

The depth of the scholarship is intended to enfranchise the book’s central argument: that anti-Zionism is today polluted with anti-Semitism. But does this work? Does his scholarship remain scrupulous?

Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) is a particular target. This is a loose coalition of British Jews – mainly liberal Zionists and non-Zionists but a few anti-Zionists. Their criticisms of Israel have shaken traditional Jewish leaders. Julius attacks them all as militant anti-Zionists who have opened the door to anti-Semitism.

A typical argument goes like this: Israel steals Palestinian land, evicts villagers, or Palestinians living in Jerusalem, and renames the land as “Jewish”. There is an anti-Jewish reaction to this among Arabs. An IJV view says this is not anti-Semitic in the traditional sense. If the reaction degenerates into open anti-Semitism, then it should be condemned but Israel must accept some responsibility. This is blaming Jews for anti-Semitism, according to Julius.

His approach can turn very nasty. Thousands of Palestinian children have been killed and maimed by the conflict. But what happens if you turn this statistical fact into a propaganda slogan against Israel?

According to Julius you indulge the most foul of ancient and medieval anti-Semitic tropes, the Blood Libel. It begins with allegations about the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s a factor in the expulsion of the Jews from medieval England – Jews were accused of kidnapping Christian babies for their blood. Now Julius claims it’s resurfacing in the cause of anti-Zionism.

Tariq Ali, Ghada Karmi, Tony Judt, the SWP, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and even the Guardian and BBC join IJV and many more individuals and organisations blamed for facilitating the “new anti-Semitism”.

In one of the most bizarre passages in the book, Julius describes Trotsky “struggling with the nakedly anti-Semitic character of Stalin’s attacks on him”. Julius is impressed that Trotsky never claimed a Jewish identity or a particular knowledge of Jews yet remained acutely sensitive to anti-Semitism. He proposes Trotsky as a sort of role model for today’s Jewish anti-Zionists – stop calling yourselves Jews!

But he forgets to add that Trotsky warned that Zionism was a “trap for the Jews” – caught between Western imperialism and a resentful Arab world. That the Jewish state’s existence depends upon the exclusion and violent oppression of the native Palestinian population would have come as no surprise.

Trotsky would have welcomed Zionist Jews escaping the trap. Whether they wished to refashion an identity either as anti-Zionist Jews or simply as anti-Zionists would hardly have concerned him. But Leopold Bloom as a possible role model for the 21st century might have afforded him a wry smile.

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