chagall levi tribe lithograph

A excerpt from my latest column for the International New York Times, on the controversy over anti-Semitism in the British Labour party:

Anti-Semitism used to be a problem primarily of the right. It wasn’t that the left had a totally clean bill of health — there is a history of left-wing anti-Semitism — but its firm foundation of universal values and egalitarian principles established a proud tradition of fighting bigotry against Jews.


In recent decades, however, much of the left has retreated from these commitments. Where before, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name of universal rights, many now stress multiculturalism, celebrating a world divided into distinct cultures, each with its own ideas, beliefs and values. Such ‘identity politics’ turns on its head the dictum of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that one should judge people ‘not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’. Once identity becomes the primary feature of political life, then people are judged as much by the group to which they belong as by their character or principles.


Identity politics has made it easier to hold all Jews responsible for the actions of the State of Israel and to go after Jews simply for being Jews. As the distinction between criticizing ideas and fingering a group has eroded, there has been a slippage from anti-Zionist activism into outright anti-Semitism. Many who support the Palestinians now seem genuinely unable to distinguish between criticizing the policies of the Israeli government and sowing hatred against a people.

Read the full article in the International New York Times.


The illustration is one of Marc Chagall’s lithographs for his ‘tribes of Israel’ stained-glass windows in the Abbell Synagogue at the Hadassah University Medical Centre, Jerusalem.


  1. A much needed column. But I wish you’d avoided the term “Zionism”, used on both sides to negate the difference between supporting Israel’s existence, and supporting Israel’s crimes

  2. Alan Cahn

    Britains history started in the 15th century when it restricted Jewish entry.
    Then , when the Ottoman Empire feel they divided up the spoils with France based on oil and not by ethnic heritage.
    Yes Balfore but no about the White Papers and yes about European taking in refugees..
    Europe can’t deal with Muslims and those that are called Palestinians integrating them into Arab/Iranian countries because of the noose of oil.
    Yes, blame it on the Jews/Israel for integrating the North African Jews/Indian Jews and Russian Jews.
    And don’t forget the Arabs that represent 20 percent all doing well inspire of UN/France and Britain.
    Shalom,Alan Cahn

  3. Of course you can criticise Israeli politics without being anti-semitic. The problem is that “Zionist” is too often the middle term between words like “International” and “Conspiracy”. If “Zionism” only meant a particular tradition of Israeli governance, the situation would be clearer. But it doesn’t always mean that – often it means something closer to what an older generation of anti-semitic thought would call “Jewry”.

    • Yes, but “Jewry” – international Jewry indeed – exists, as it has every right to do, along with the Muslim Ummah and the Catholic (“worldwide”) Church.

      “Jewry’s” existence is proved by that of a powerful Israel Lobby (not monolithic, nor a conspiracy, nor even exclusively Jewish) especially in the States.

      Moreover, with American Protestantism in decline, Jews (though not most US Jews, obviously) have since the 1970’s formed most of the Ruling Class of the USA, economically and thus politically.

      And indeed culturally, since the default culture of Mr & Mrs Average American is now no longer Christian (that’s kept in a box marked “Sundays Only”) but an unconscious secular Judaism, pro-Zionism included.

      This is not Conspiracy, but the result of Jewish intelligence and determination.

      It is these facts (and, however tactless it may be to mention them, they are facts) – which give rise to a gut feeling in many that the world is controlled by a Jewish / American stitch-up.

      Hence the bitterness of anti-Zionism and the slide into anti-semitism, notably in the Muslim / Left alliance opposing “Zionism.”

      Or is it at root, anti-Americanism or anti-Capitalism ?

      The only cure would seem to be a frank (even very frank !) Dialogue between the two opposing coalitions of political belief.

      • Tony Buck, the article was actually prompted by a nasty and very damaging quarrel within the UK Labour Party. But with the best of intentions you have just illustrated the problem, in th eUK, Us, and elsewhere. Inclusion of diverse opinions into coalitions of your own defining; the whole point of my own earlier comment was to challenge such inclusion. Exaggerating the power of Jews (“most of the Ruling Class of the USA, economically and thus politically”; are “most” US billionaires or Fortune 500 CEOs Jews? Surely not). Ignoring the Evangelical Christian Zionists, whom the Israeli Right have been cultivating for years.

        And one of Kenan Malik’s recurring themes: discussing the treatment of individuals within our own societies in terms of their group membership, rather than the respect due to them as individuals.

  4. Tudor Eynon

    As always I agree with you Kenan. Bit boring really! I think you are correct and one of the few to have thought through the role of ‘identity politics’ in all this. The timing of this furore is interesting. I have no idea what Ken L was trying to do or say, I think caught somehow off guard… ?

  5. “clinging to virtually every conspiracy theory about Jews: that they held too much power over government, the media, business and world affairs”

    This is true insofar as it is so very difficult in most places I go (online or real world) to criticise israel without being told, at the least, that “one doesn’t say that kind of thing” or at the most censured.

  6. opabinia

    It have to be said that even Israeli supporters tend to call antisemite everyone who criticizes that country.

    • Even SOME supporters of Israel’s existence. I am angry both at those who do this, and those who put me in the same box with them. As I have been trying to point out, “Israeli supporters” would describe a very diverse group, including those who feel as I do that criticism is, and has been for many years, the form of support most needed

  7. David Nathanson

    Dear Mr. Malik:
    Your analysis of the British Left’s “Jewish Problem” is exceedingly incisive. The left, in general, not just in Britain, has allowed the progressive narrative to be hijacked by people whom you aptly describe as having adopted “identity politics.”

    There is one area, though, in which you may have tripped up. You suggest that “criticism of Zionism” is “criticism of an ideology.” It can easily be more than that.

    If criticism of Zionism means criticism of this or that action taken by the Israeli government of the day, that is one thing; such criticism is obviously legitimate.

    But if criticism of Zionism means criticism of the notion that the Jews have a right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, that is another; it is tantamount to saying that Israel does not have the right to exist despite history. It is easy to see why Jews would be very slow to concede that such criticism is legitimate and why they may infer that it is motivated by anti-Semitism even though it may not be in fact.

    • Thanks for this. You cannot, however, protect Zionism from criticism simply by declaring it to be the self-determination of Jews. For a start, whether or not it does constitute self-determination is itself a matter for debate. And even if it does, that would not, and should not, protect it from criticism. I was critical of the movement for Scottish independence; does not make me bigoted towards Scots? Or does the fact that I oppose the creation of a Caliphate (which some Muslims view as an expression of Muslim self-determination) make me bigoted towards Muslims? Clearly not. And similarly, one can be opposed to Zionism as an ideology (indeed, many Jews are) without being anti-Semitic. The attempts to shield Zionism from criticism in this fashion seems to me to fit in with the zeitgeist of our times, with the fashion for declaring certain ideas to be too precious or important to the people who hold them to be made open to criticism. For me, no idea can be so protected.

      • Ted

        You’re correct – no idea can lie beyond criticism. But, context matters. Support for Zionism (at least from the UN in the establishment of Israel) was born of the recognition that the world’s Jews simply could not trust other countries to protect them from annihilation. The Scottish independence movement simply did not come from this context. Opposing Scottish independence could never implicitly imply an acceptance of genocide of the Scots. When people say they are ‘anti Zionist’ I ask whether they mean they are against a Jewish homeland, or against this specific (Israeli) construct, or they mean something else altogether e.g. the actions of the Israeli state against this or that group?

        • Yes, context matters. And the Holocaust certainly occupies an important part of the context of the debate about Zionism (though, of course, Zionism was not born of the Holocaust, but has a much longer history). But to criticise Zionism as an ideology is not to ‘implicitly imply an acceptance of genocide’. Certainly, itt may do so; and I pointed out in my article that

          As the distinction between criticizing ideas and fingering a group has eroded, there has been a slippage from anti-Zionist activism into outright anti-Semitism. Many who support the Palestinians now seem genuinely unable to distinguish between criticizing the policies of the Israeli government and sowing hatred against a people.

          It is necessary to challenge any such slippage. But the fact that such slippage exists should not be an argument that no criticism of Zionism as an ideology is acceptable.

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