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Sean Matgamna on Left Antisemitism (Fathom)

Contemporary left-wing antisemitism is first and foremost a denial of Israel’s right to exist and, as a result, a comprehensive hostility to pro-Israel Jews, that is to most Jews alive, branding them as ‘Zionists’ and seeing that description as akin to ‘racist’ or ‘imperialist,’ writes Sean Matgamna. In this clear-sighted essay taken from his book, The Left in Disarray (Workers Liberty Press, 2017), he sets out what ‘left-wing antisemitism’ is, where is it manifested and what is to be done about it. Fathom would like to thank Sean Matgamna for permission to reprint the essay.

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What is ‘left-wing antisemitism’? Where is it manifested? What is to be done about it? There are three difficulties, three confusions and obfuscations that stand in the way of rational discussion of what we mean by ‘left-wing antisemitism’.

The first is that left-wing antisemitism knows itself by another and more self-righteous name, ‘anti-Zionism’. Often, your left-wing antisemite sincerely believes that he or she is only an anti-Zionist, only a just if severe critic of Israel.

The second is that talk of left-wing antisemitism to a left-wing antisemite normally evokes indignant, sincere, and just denial of something else! ‘No, I’m not a racist! How dare you call me a racist?’

No, indeed, apart from an atypical crackpot here and there, left-wing antisemites are not racist. But there was antisemitism before there was late-19th and 20th century anti-Jewish racism. And there is still antisemitism of different sorts, long after disgust with Hitler-style racism, and overt racism of any sort, became part of the mental and emotional furniture of all half-way decent people, and perhaps especially of left-wing people.

Left-wingers are people who by instinct and conviction side with the oppressed, the outcasts, those deprived of human rights, with the working-class and the labour movement. We naturally side against the police, the military, and the powerful capitalist states, including our ‘own’. We are socially tolerant; in contrast to ‘hang ’em, flog ’em, build more jails’ people; we look to changing social conditions rather than to punishment to deal with crime – we are people who want to be Marxists and socialists, and consistent democrats. Confused some such people may be, racists they are not. We are not saying that left-wing antisemites are racists.

The third source of confusion and obfuscation is the objection: ‘You say I’m an antisemite because I denounce Israel. I’m not anti-Jewish when I denounce Israel, but anti-Zionist.’ And sometimes, at this point, you get the addition: ‘By the way, I am myself Jewish.’

The objector continues: Israel deserves criticism. Even the harshest criticism of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza, and of Israel’s long-term treatment of the Palestinians, is pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist, not antisemitic. To equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism is just crude and hysterical Zionist apologetics.

No, by ‘left-wing antisemitism’ we emphatically do not mean political, military, or social criticism of Israel and of the policy of Israeli governments. Certainly, not all left-wing critics of Israel or Zionism are antisemites, even though these days all antisemites, including the right-wing, old-fashioned, and racist antisemites, are paid-up ‘anti-Zionists’.

Israel frequently deserves criticism. Israel’s policy in the Occupied Territories and its general treatment of the Palestinians deserve outright condemnation. The oppressed Palestinians need to be politically defended against Israeli governments and the Israeli military. The only halfway equitable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a viable, independent Palestinian state in contiguous territory, side by side with Israel, needs to be argued for and upheld against Israeli power.

Solidarity condemns Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. We defend the Palestinians and champion an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel.

The difference here between left-wing antisemites and honest critics of Israel – a category which includes a very large number of Israeli Jews as well as Israeli Arabs – is a straightforward one of politics, of policy.

The left-wing antisemites do not only criticise Israel. They condemn it outright and deny its right to exist. They use legitimate criticisms, and utilise our natural sympathy with the Palestinians, not to seek redress, not as arguments against an Israeli government, an Israeli policy, or anything specifically wrong in Israel, but as arguments against the right of Israel to exist at all. Any Israel. Any Jewish state in the area. Any Israel, with any policy, even one in which all the specific causes for justly criticising present-day Israel and for supporting the Palestinians against it have been entirely eliminated.

The root problem, say the left-wing antisemites, is that Israel exists. READ MORE.