chagall exodus moses sees the sufferings of his people

This is the full version of the article I wrote last month for the International New York Times on the controversy about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. (I cannot publish my INYT articles on Pandaemonium until a month after it is published in the newspaper.)  It was originally published under the headline ‘The British Left’s Jewish Problem’. I have slightly edited it to take account of the fact that the original was published before the London Mayoral election.

It has, admitted Sadiq Khan, in the run-up to last month’s election for London mayor, become ‘more difficult for Londoners of Jewish faith to feel that the Labour Party is a place for them’.

The Labour Party has been embroiled in a furious dispute over the attitudes of some members toward Jews. Two leading figures, Naseem Shah, MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, a former London mayor and a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, were suspended from the party for what were condemned as anti-Semitic remarks. Ms Shah had suggested in a social media post that Israel be ‘relocated’ to the United States, while Mr Livingstone had tried to defend her by claiming that Adolf Hitler had been a Zionist.

It is not the first such uproar: In February, the party was forced to open an investigation into the Oxford University Labour Club, and in March to suspend some councilors and activists accused of anti-Semitism. All this has led a number of prominent Jews — including the novelist Howard Jacobson, the former senior BBC executive Danny Cohen and the Financial Times’ managing editor Robert Shrimsley — to withdraw support from Labour.

For others, however, the controversies reveal not Labour’s anti-Semitism but a campaign by the party’s enemies to discredit it. ‘It’s a smear to say that Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism’, claimed shadow cabinet member Diane Abbott.

There is little question that Labour’s opponents — and internal critics of the party’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn — have exploited the issue for factional gain. Nor is it hard to see the hypocrisy. Boris Johnson, the current mayor of London and a leading figure in the Conservative Party, said that Labour had been infected by the ‘virus of anti-Semitism’. A week earlier, he had exposed his own racial sensitivity, dismissing President Obama’s support for Britain’s membership of the European Union as the animus of a ‘part-Kenyan president’ with an ‘ancestral dislike of the British Empire’.

Yet neither the cynicism nor the hypocrisy should distract us from the problem of anti-Semitism — not just in the Labour Party, but on the political left more generally. It is not that the left is packed with anti-Semites; it is rather that too many among them have been willing to accommodate bigotry.

This acquiescence is rooted in the changing character of the left in recent years. Anti-Semitism used to be a problem primarily of the right. It wasn’t that the left had a clean bill of health – while it has a proud tradition of standing up to anti-Jewish bigotry, there is a long history, too, of leftwing anti-Semitism. But the left’s traditional espousal of a universalist perspective and its commitment to equality established a firm foundation from which to challenge anti-Semitism.

In recent decades, however, much of the left has rowed back on its former cosmopolitan, universalist perspective. Where once radicals challenging inequality and oppression had done 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 Martin Luther King 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.

In the context of anti-Semitism, identity politics has made it easier to target Jews for being Jews, and to hold all Jews responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. This in turn has facilitated the slippage from anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism, as the distinction between criticizing ideas and fingering a group has eroded. 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.

The reverse is also true: Many supporters of Israel today deem anti-Semitic any criticism of Zionism on the ground that it denies Jewish self-determination. That, too, is to confuse legitimate criticism of an ideology with illegitimate bigotry.

chagal exodus bezaleel and his two golden cherubim

Along with the embrace of identity politics has come a proliferation of conspiracy theories. The notion that global affairs are secretly controlled by hidden actors with a malevolent agenda — a classic trope of anti-Semitism — was once a fringe view. Today, such ideas have moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream. Many on the left routinely view public life as manipulated by cabals of bankers, media moguls and the like. Through this process, old canards about Jews have found a new currency.

The final issue, and perhaps the one most difficult to broach for many on the left, is the growth of Muslim communities in the West. ‘It pains me to have to admit this’, wrote Mehdi Hasan, one of Britain’s leading left-wing Muslim voices, in 2013, ‘but anti-Semitism isn’t just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community, it’s routine and commonplace.’

Last month, an opinion poll of British Muslims bore out Mr Hasan’s contention. It showed a significant proportion of British Muslims — 30 to 40 per cent — clinging to virtually every conspiracy theory about Jews: that they held too much power over government, the media, business and world affairs.

There are complex reasons for the growth of anti-Semitism among British Muslims. But whatever the reasons, these are attitudes and beliefs that must be challenged every time they surface. Many liberal Muslims do just that, often at great cost. But too many on the left have become willing to live with such bigotry.

Some naïvely view radical Islamists as comrades in arms in the struggle against imperialism and in support of Palestinians, so they overlook reactionary views. While mayor, Mr. Livingstone, for example, welcomed as a ‘progressive voice’ Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who regards Israelis as legitimate targets of suicide bombings and has described the Holocaust as ‘divine punishment’. For his part, before he became Labour Party leader, Mr. Corbyn greeted delegations from Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘our friends’.

It is not that the Labour Party leadership is anti-Semitic. What is troubling has been the unwillingness of figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone to call out those who are. And that is true of too many on the left.


The images are lithographs by Marc Chagal from his ‘Exodus’ series. The two shown here are ‘Moses sees the sufferings of his people’ and ‘Bezaléel and his two golden cherubim’.


  1. Georgina Turner

    i agree with you about the confusion between anti-zionism and anti-semitism. and of course we have a moral duty as cituzens to not be complicit with unacceptable prejudices.

  2. yandoodan

    Thank you for using the term “bigotry”. Once common in the 1970s, leftists have almost completely abandoned it in favor of “racism”. Racism is, of course, a subset of bigotry. Racism is bigotry against certain groups. Groups we approve of. Bigotry against other, non-approved groups, has been moved within the Pale.

    Is it even necessary for me to point out that “Race” is a social construct? Biologists who study humanity as a species universally deny the validity of any subspecies, however defined. “Race” has no more biological justification for groping us into subspecies as “Handedness” — probably less so, as Handedness is more persistent when exposed to selective pressure. In effect, Race exists only because people think about it. When people stop thinking about Race, it will softly and suddenly vanish away.

    So why does the Left struggle so hard to preserve and extend people’s belief in Race? Why do they insist that Race objectively exists, denying all the science on the subject? Why can’t leftists embrace the idea that racism is wrong, not because some of the targets of bigots have been labeled as belonging to arbitrarily defined “Races”, but because all bigotry is evil?

    • yandoodan

      “Grouping us into subspecies”, not “groping”. Although “groping us into subspecies” does make a weird sort of sense.

    • Yen

      Excellent point. It seems that the left has designated the types of bigotry that are to be considered evil and fought against with special names: racism for discrimination against groups that white Europeans have done harm to in the past, and others such as sexism, able-ism, homophobia, etc for the other groups it sees Europeans as having harmed; but in doing so lost the spirit of combatting racism. These narrowly defined categories of bigotry, each with its own code of political correctness to guard against trivial microagressions, make it harder for people to recognize prejudice for itself when it does not come in the canned form. When there is a different set of nit-picky, sometimes arbitrary rules for how to treat each social group as protection against even the most minor forms of offense, the critical social virtues of tolerance and respect for the differences of others begin to fade as they are replaced by a convoluted system that in fact demands we treat different groups differently.

  3. Mark Rosenthal

    I generally find your writing to be quite insightful, and I agree with most of what you say here. But I do have a problem when you write, “Many supporters of Israel today deem anti-Semitic any criticism of Zionism on the ground that it denies Jewish self-determination. That, too, is to confuse legitimate criticism of an ideology with illegitimate bigotry.”

    When the Jewish people had no country of their own, the governments and people of the countries they lived in could expel or murder them, and seize their property with impunity. Spain expelled the Jews and seized their property. France expelled the Jews and seized their property. Pogroms were conducted against Jews throughout Russia and Eastern Europe. And lest we forget, England expelled the Jews, seized their property and kept that edict in effect for 366 years, and never made any restitution. And then of course, there was Germany which tried to murder every Jew in Europe, succeeded in murdering two out of every three of Europe’s Jews, and of course seized their property.

    The English people have never faced persecution on a scale anything like that, yet I’m quite certain that they would consider anyone who suggested that the English don’t deserve a nation, and proposed that England ought to be dissolved and the English people should all be moved elsewhere would be considered an anti-English bigot. Zionism is simply a recognition that the Jewish people deserve no less than the English, and especially so in light of the long history of brutality the Jews have faced.

    On the other hand, there’s nothing illegitimate about criticizing the policies of the Israeli government. Israelis do it all the time. The fact that they feel free to do so is one of the things that convinces me that it’s a free society. Such criticism only rises to the level of illegitimate bigotry when the critics willfully turn a blind eye to equivalent behavior on the part of other governments and single out the Israeli government for condemnation.

    The bottom line is that when you ask whether an individual’s speech should be categorized as anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist, you’ve limited yourself to two categories when there should be three:

    1. anti-Semite: one who hates Jews

    2. anti-Zionist: one who believes that the Jews should not have their own nation, willfully ignoring the fact that two millennia of history have demonstrated that this would return them to the condition of subservience and vulnerability that caused so many of them to lose their lives, livelihoods, and possessions. I feel that anyone who ignores that likelihood, or who believes they should be returned to that condition should also be considered an anti-Semite.

    3. legitimate critic of the Israeli government: One who criticizes the actions of the Israeli government, as long as their criticism is roughly proportionate to the egregiousness of that government’s actions in comparison to the actions of other governments when faced with similar circumstances. Additionally, criticism of the actions of the Israeli government by Israelis who desire to improve it are legitimate even if it’s not proportionate, because they have an ownership stake in their own government, just as the English people have an ownership stake in the government of England.

    • First, my apologies for not replying till now – I have been away and unable to respond. It is striking that Mark Rosenthal, here, suggests that I ignore anti-Semitism by accepting anti-Zionism as a legitimate viewpoint, while Kevin Whitston (comment further down) accuses me of overplaying accusations of anti-Semitism. It sums up the confusion that now reigns on this issue. I will deal with Mark’s points here, and respond to Kevin Whitston below his comment.

      At the heart of Mark Rosenthal’s argument us this:

      anti-Zionist: one who believes that the Jews should not have their own nation, willfully ignoring the fact that two millennia of history have demonstrated that this would return them to the condition of subservience and vulnerability that caused so many of them to lose their lives, livelihoods, and possessions. I feel that anyone who ignores that likelihood, or who believes they should be returned to that condition should also be considered an anti-Semite.

      The trouble with this argument is two-fold:

      First, anti-Zionism is a form of nationalism. There are many expressions of nationalism which I oppose. I opposed the Scottish demand for nationhood. That does not mean that I wanted to visit oppression or terror upon Scots. It simply meant that, in my view, the interests of Scots (and of non-Scots) were not best served through the creation of a separate Scottish nation.

      Of course, it is true that Scots have never suffered a Holocaust, nor the long history of oppression that Jews have faced. The fact of the Holocaust and of that history of oppression may, in your eyes, be an argument in support of Zionism. But it does not make those who oppose Zionism de facto anti-Semites. Far from it – the debate, fundamentally, is about whether or not Zionism best serves the interest of Jews. Your claim is that the existence of Israel protects Jews from another Holocaust and that without Israel it ‘would return them to the condition of subservience and vulnerability that caused so many of them to lose their lives, livelihoods, and possessions.’ Given that the vast proportion of Jews live outside of Israel, those seem, at the very least, disputable claims.

      It is worth noting that prior to the Holocaust, and more especially prior to the creation of the state Israel, Zionism was a minority view within Jewish communities. The majority of Jews, despite their history of oppression, did not accept the Zionist vision. That is not the case today. But the fact the majority of Jews now accept Zionism does not make opposition to it necessarily anti-Semitic, any more than it did in the days when the majority of Jews opposed it. To declare anti-Zionism in itself to be anti-Semitic is no more valid than declaring (as some do) that Zionism is in itself racist. Both are means of cutting off debate, of refusing properly to engage with contrary arguments, but simply of dismissing them as illegitimate.

      Second, your notion of the ‘right of self-determination’ is problematic. I opposed Scottish independence, but supported the right of Scots to make that decision. What I would not have accepted is the right of those of Scottish ancestry outside of Scotland to make that decision.

      Similarly, I agree with the right of Jews (and of non-Jews) who now live in Israel/Palestine to collective determine their future. But your notion of ‘self-determination’ with respect to Jews is something different. Your concept is that of Jews anywhere in the world to ‘self-determine’ by determining the founding and the future of a state in which the vast majority of Jews do not live, will not live, could not live, and do not wish to live. That, to me, is a highly implausible notion of ‘national self- determination’, especially as the only group to which such a concept applies are Jews.

      This is also why your analogy with the ‘English’ does not work. You argue that

      anyone who suggested that the English don’t deserve a nation, and proposed that England ought to be dissolved and the English people should all be moved elsewhere would be considered an anti-English bigot.

      Let us leave aside the complication that England as a ’nation’ exists not as a self-standing state but as part of the state of the United Kingdom. The point that you are trying to make is obvious, and could be applied without complication to the case of France or of India. But the analogy is also false. ‘Self-determination’ when it comes to England is defined with respect to those who live in England (or, more specifically, those who possess citizenship), not those who are defined as ‘English’ by certain norms of heritage wherever they may live in the world. Similarly with France, India, etc.

      Any suggestion that Jews in Israel should be ‘moved elsewhere’ would indeed be an expression of bigotry. But it is tendentious to suggest that to be an anti-Zionist is to demand that Jews who live in Israel be ‘moved elsewhere’.

      To make the point I am about Jewish self-determination is not the same as to argue for the ‘destruction of the state of Israel’, which is usually (a not very veiled) code for the destruction of Jews. It is rather to insist that ‘self-determination’ in that piece of contested land that is Israel/Palestine means the self-determination of the people who live there, not of Jews worldwide. And that self-determination must include the Palestinians who lived on the land on which the state of Israel was constructed and who have suffered grievously as a result.

      The people who live in Israel/Palestine may determine that they wish to live in two separate states, one Jewish and one Palestinian. They may also determine that they wish to live in a single state that serves the needs and aspirations of all of them, and that is niether specifically a Jewish state, nor specifically a Palestinian state, but open and not rooted in religion or ethnicity. That might seem Utopian (though, today, a two-state solution, in which there are two fully fledged, independent, autonomous, democratic nations, might seem even more Utopian) but, Utopian or not, I would insist that the decision must be for the people who live there, not for those who live elsewhere.

      Whatever solution would have to protect, and receive a democratic mandate from, both Jews and Palestinians. The right to self-determination of Palestinians should not constrain the right to self-determination of Jews who now live in Israel. But neither should the right to self-determination of Jews in Israel constrain the right to self-determination of Palestinians.

      UPDATE: I have republished an edited and extended version of this reply as a new post.

  4. ngir

    “2. anti-Zionist: one who believes that the Jews should not have their own nation, wilfully ignoring the fact that two millennia of history have demonstrated that this would return them to the condition of subservience and vulnerability that caused so many of them to lose their lives, livelihoods, and possessions. I feel that anyone who ignores that likelihood, or who believes they should be returned to that condition should also be considered an anti-Semite.”

    It is not possible to believe that this form of Nationhood, imposed upon a territory that was ‘gifted’ to *the* Jews, in despite of it being a territory occupied by people’s – farmers, traders, families, human beings with a claim to those farms / houses, shops which were historically theirs, is the solution to the gross problem of anti-semitism – an attitude which I call ‘Isaac Deutscher-ism’ (v. his writings about coming to the conclusion that only territorial-nationhood would solve centuries of oppression), without being blind to the oppression thus visited upon the Palestinians.

    And in that blindness to accuse those of us who see it, of being against you in your need.

    I support the foundation of a single, secular, democratic state containing all the peoples of the territory.

    Historically this is utopian, since the questions of nationhood and power which we are dealing with, have, so far in historical record, only ever been decided by one side winning the military and ideological battles; so far it is Eretz Israel which is winning: that does not look like it will change very soon.

    At least my interlocutor, Mark Rosenthal does not need to beat himself up for being a self-hating Jew, and if he can now treat me as an anti-semite, he’s in the clear, isn’t he.

    Tom Richardson

  5. This post does you no credit. Your are in danger of turning a valuable argument about identity politics into a catch-all explanation rolled out for all occasions. You rely on loose generalisations (‘much of the left’) about those you criticise and make very little connection between what they supposedly stand for and anti-Semitism or bigotry. There may well be a problem of anti-Semitic sentiment in Muslim communities. You at least have evidence of this. And the left is too often reluctant to criticise Muslims for fear of being accused of Islamophobia. You say the left strays over the line between criticism of Israel and Zionism, and Jews as Jews. Where is the evidence for this?

    Perhaps you mean a statement like this, one that I am prepared to defend: ‘the Jewish lobby is increasingly a threat to free speech’. Not an Israeli or Zionist lobby, but a Jewish one. Is this anti-Semitic, does it cross the line? I think not. There are a range of prominent individuals, and organisations such as Jewish student bodies and the Board of Deputies, that issue statements claiming to speak for Jews. They certainly do not speak for all Jews; they may not even speak for a majority but they unquestionably speak as Jews, and believe they speak for Jews. It would be ridiculous to deny that there is such a lobby, and it is one with an oft-reported and apparently influential voice.

    The most disappointing thing about your post is that it does not acknowledge the threat to free speech which the reaction to Shah and Livingstone has promoted. There is a pattern to Jewish (defined above) criticism, reflected and amplified in an unthinking media which, when it isn’t calling for people to be silenced, runs something like this: ‘I’m not saying that this or that person/statement is necessarily anti-Semitic but they must make it clear that they are not and/or apologise; they should acknowledge that they have caused offence and make it clear that they will be more careful in the future’. Like the ‘safe spaces’ that Muslims, Christians, and minority sexual identities have demanded, it is an attempt to cramp and confine free speech within limits that do not offend. You have written enough about this to have recognised it in the spat about Livingstone.

    • To defend free speech does not mean that one should not call out bigotry where one sees it. On the contrary, as I argued in ‘Why Hate Speech Should Not be Banned’:

      The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to racism and bigotry.

      Yes, claims of anti-Semitism can be used to shut down debate. But objecting to such censorship does not require one not to call out anti-Semitism where it exists, any more than objecting to the shutting down of debate in the name of ‘Islamophobia’ means that one does not call out anti-Muslim bigotry where one sees it.

      Where is there any evidence for people on the left crossing the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? Well, let us begin with Naz Shah’s ‘joke’ about ‘relocating’ Israel to the USA and Ken Livingstone’s claim that a ‘real anti-Semite doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel, they hate their Jewish neighbour in Golders Green’ too. If you don’t regard both as having crossed the line, then we have very different notions of what constitutes anti-Semitism.

      Is it anti-Semitic to suggest that ‘the Jewish lobby is increasingly a threat to free speech’? If you are suggesting that virtually all identity or interest groups attempt to constrain speech that they find offensive or challenging, possibly not. If you are singling out Jews, almost certainly yes. People talk of the ‘Muslim lobby’ or the ‘Hindu lobby’, but relatively rarely. Talk of the ‘Jewish lobby’ is far more prevalent. (If you Google those phrases, for instance, there are12,600 and 2950 hits for the former two phrases, respectively; there are 219,000 hits for ‘Jewish lobby’.) In this context, the use of the phrase ‘the Jewish lobby’ is not a neutral act, but one that deliberately calls upon the long history of its anti-Semitic use, and the long history, too, of conspiracy theories about Jews, and their supposed control over business, the media and politics.

      In any case, I am not interested in your ‘Am I being too provocative?’ game. Because it is not a game. You can say what you like, and be as provocative as you wish. I will defend your right to do so, but I will also, if you are being bigoted, point that out.

      To say that ‘much of the left has rowed back on its former cosmopolitan, universalist perspective’ is not a ‘loose generalisation’, but an observation of recent trends. If you dispute that observation, then you seem to understand neither my arguments about identity politics, nor the recent developments about which I have written in detail. The problem is not that I am ‘turning… identity politics into a catch-all explanation’, but that you seemingly ignore its consequences when it does not suit you to recognize it.

  6. damon

    I’d be interested to know Kenan’s view on the ”Harry’s Place” website. They are big Israel supporters and attack antisemitism wherever they find or suspect it.
    See a post here today about Labour party member Jackie Walker who had been suspended for a while, as the party investigated some things she had said about the Holocaust.

    While I agree with them quite often, they go way too far also in my opinion.
    In their support for Israel and their seeing antisemitism everywhere.
    I was accused of it on the site myself.
    They are part of the problem I think. They end up being sectarian.

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