“How the Left Turned Against the Jews”

by A. Jay Adler on March 30, 2012
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Nick Cohen at Standpoint writing, in “How the Left Turned Against the Jews,” about Colin Shindler’s new book, Israel and the European Left:

But in a strange manner few discuss, the death of Communism has freed far-Left ideas from the cage of the Cold War. When the far Left was a global force, the mainstream liberal Left had to draw dividing lines and defend itself from its attacks. Now that the far Left threatens no one, the borders have gone. The media would hound from public life any conservative who shared platforms with members of a neo-Nazi group. But respectable leftists can now associate with those who would once have been regarded as poisonous extremists — and no one notices. What applies to personal alliances applies equally to ideology. Foul ideas flood past the unmanned border posts, with disastrous consequences for Jews and Arabs.

I wrote earlier in the month, in “The Internationalist Cover for Anti-Semitism,”

One of the consequences of the fall of Communism has been a kind of analytical disjunction in recognizing ideological continuities on the far left. Communism as a significant modern organizing ideology of nation states came to an end, so the focus it provided for a host of Western political parties and tendencies was lost. Too often since, the far left in its alliances and antipathies has been spoken of by liberals and social democrats as a shocking ethical outlier. But it has ever been thus. Nothing has changed.

One line of continuity is seen in left manifestations of anti-Semitism. On the far right, as an active strain, anti-Semitism is almost always outspoken. The hate is expressed and the tropes are freely figured. The far left has always been anti-Semitic in the bad faith of denial. This contrast is historically represented in Nazi Germany and Soviet era Communism. For the fascist or reactionary, the Jew is a stateless, cosmopolitan subverter of the true, the ideal, culture of the volk. In the twentieth century, from the Bolsheviks on, such cosmopolitan internationalism – in Marxist consciousness – was the very contrary ideal. The Marxist ideal was the transcendence of nationalism, of factionalism, of particularity in identity beyond the proletarian. Thus, for the Marxist-Leninist, theoretically, Jews too often clung irredeemably to their identity as Jews. The Bundists were the perfect example of this resistant clinging to particularity, wishing, even as socialists and secularists, to remain and be recognized as Jews. On the far left, then, as far back at least as the Bolshevik Revolution, Jews identifying as a Jews were criticized for their failure to be international, for espousing – to use an anachronistic term– identity politics.

The recognition, then, is there, of how transgressive tendencies flitted about the boundaries between the far and liberal left and how the fall of the communist states and the disappearance of that Marxist nomenclature has made it easier for the transgressions to slip through the trees, almost unnoticed, across the borders. And the Jew, both as this remarkable historical case of ineradicable, distinctive identity in difference and as idealistic advocate of the eradication of difference, has been there, and been a victim, from the start. Writes Cohen,

The movements for Jewish self-determination and Russian Communism were twins separated at birth. The First Zionist conference met on August 27, 1897, to discuss the escape from anti-Semitic Europe to Palestine. The General Jewish Labour Bund held its first conference in Vilnius on October 7, 1897, to organise the Russian Empire’s Jews in a united socialist party. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, from which the Bolsheviks split, held its first conference in March 1898. Naturally, the Bund sent delegates. For liberal and left-wing Europeans of the late 19th century, no regime was more repellent than Tsarist autocracy, and nothing better symbolised its reactionary nature than its anti-Semitic pogroms. Jews responded to the terror by keeping their Jewish identity and joining Jewish socialist movements, such as the Bund, or by becoming entirely assimilated Communists, as Trotsky and many others did.

The coincidences of history do not end there. On November 2, 1917, Arthur Balfour sent his declaration to Baron Rothschild that the British Empire would allow the Jewish people to find a home in Palestine “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”. On November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace.

The Jews and the Left were entwined. Many who went to Palestine were socialists determined that the New Jerusalem should be in Jerusalem. Others saw a New Jerusalem rising in Moscow.

The historical record is clear that Bolshevism, Stalinism, Soviet and Eastern Bloc communism turned on the Jews – if differently in manner and scope – no less clearly than the Nazis. For the fascist the racial hatred was explicit; for the far left there has always been the ideological overlay, the denial, the bad faith. From Cohen:

Three features of the old Left‘s racism feel contemporary. Naturally, Communists could not say that Jews were members of a “Judaeo-Bolshevik” cabal. They had to recast the conspiracy as a right-wing plot and substitute “Zionist” for “Jew”. When Stalin put Rudolf Slansky and other Czech Communists on trial in 1952 the authorities announced: “The whole worldwide Zionist movement was in fact led and ruled by the imperialists, in particular the US imperialists, by means of US Zionists. For US Zionists, who are financially most powerful and politically the most influential Zionists, form part of the ruling imperialist circles of the USA.”

This is what we call “ripped from today’s headlines.” The new offense is always different though, always unrecognizable to itself, and for the same reason.

These critics defend [themselves] because they believe that this time it is true. They believe that this time… there really is a cadre of Jews exercising excessive, secretive power while aggressively attempting to suppress any exposure of it. And like all their reactionary forebears (like every GOP reactionary today who plays the card of nationalist loyalty) they forget that the belief they cling to is the belief to which purveyors of anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish power always hold fast – it’s the essential marker of the tradition – that what they believe is true.

For far left Jews since, as for the Bundists originally, the tension has always been there, between the utopian ideological commitments – Marxist, anti-imperialist, postcolonial – and the historical and cultural reality of Jewishness. More Cohen:

Western Communists of Jewish origin rushed to prove their loyalty by supporting [Stalin’s 1952 Czech leadership] pogrom; not out of fear of physical violence, for no one could threaten them in the West, but out of fear of the ostracism that would follow a falling out with the Left. Maxime Rodinson, a French Communist who defended the purges, later said that he could not face “the most obvious facts” about the fascistic nature of the Communists because of his “visceral need not to renounce a commitment that has illuminated one’s life, given it meaning, and for which many sacrifices have often been made”.

Ever since there have been loyalty tests and demands for left-wing Jews to speak “as a Jew” as Howard Jacobson puts it, and announce their shame of and contempt for Israel.

As-a-Jewism is rampant today, as is the ideologically inverted bad-faith anti-Semitism that produces obscenities like Sarah Schulman’s upcoming CUNY Graduate Center “Homonationalism and Pinkwashing” gathering, an academic conference primed to take its place in the sordid history of far left perversions of principle. Schulman, however, is a fringe player, whereas The New York Times, which recently gave her a forum, is more identifiably the problem. It goes back to where we started here, the erasing of that border that the communist states previously marked off, and over which the high liberal Times now provides a bridge.

Among non-right anti-Jewish tendencies, there have always been varied strains. There are the bitterly, passionately personal such as Norman Finkelstein, the uncanny erupters like Mearsheimer & Walt, the cracked pots of fiercely animated but incoherent commitments in which such as Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald reside. But it is the mainstream liberals like Peter Beinart who are crossing the border. Or Amnesty International regularly providing space in its London offices for conferences led by known Islamists. It is in such as they that the greater threat resides.

Cohen ends,

Now as then, nothing makes the sterling Left’s spittle flow more freely than mention of the state of Israel. They may not know it, for they know very little, but the origins of their Pavlovian response lie deep in the terrible history of the 20th-century Left.

Where once the far left and its misguided liberal allies had the U.S.-Soviet proxy wars to focus their attention – in Latin America, Africa, and Asia – now the Marxist states and their contentions for power are gone. Now, the substitute is Israel. All of the ideological apparatus and vocabulary – colonial, imperial, indigenous, other, apartheid, racist, Nazi, fascist – has been brought to bear on the fabrication of a new false Jewish narrative to take its place in magnitude with all those that came before it. Now instead of the Soviet Union or China or Cuba with whom to mis-ally, it is reactionary Islam and Arab and Persian despots, the worst kinds of illiberal misogynists and homophobes and anti-Semites. There is not even dream of the utopian state anymore, but only the intellectual construct erected against the perceived enemy of that state.

Now, at this exalted height and debased low of political development, the focus of Puritopian animus lands once more and crucially on Israel, and the Jews. It is a battle that will take up at least the remainder of the century’s first quarter, maybe much more. And an irony, a pitiful irony, is how much it will empower the right.

AJA

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