Kathleen Hayes invites the ‘anti-Zionist’ Left to think again.
For 25 years, I was a member of a small, insular, Trotskyist organisation. Periodically during some febrile internal dispute, our Great Leader would invoke Oliver Cromwell. ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ’, he’d howl, ‘to think it possible that you may be mistaken.’ The Great Leader seldom admitted he was wrong about anything, of course—any more than I did or, I suspect, than had Lord Protector Cromwell himself. Still the injunction is a good one. You must at the very least be able to think it possible that you could be wrong.
I want you to consider that your beliefs about Zionism are seriously distorted and that the way a broad swathe of the left community responds to Israel both reflects and perpetuates antisemitism. I say this as someone who for many years shared these beliefs. I marched against Israel countless times and railed about ‘Zionist terror’. I believed Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II; that there was nothing wrong with comparing Israel to Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa; that twinning the Magen David with a swastika was an unobjectionable way to indicate their moral equivalence. I know how good it feels to take what you believe is the side of oppressed against oppressor, and to anathematise those who challenge this worthy goal. I want you to think again.
Consider the experience of Eve Barlow. Barlow is a talented young Scottish Jewish journalist, now based in Los Angeles. Among other things, she writes about antisemitism. In the past year alone she has written about Jews beaten and stabbed and deliberately rammed by cars; about vandalised synagogues; about a desecrated Torah and a Chabad house burned to the ground. She reported on a convoy of cars that passed through Jewish neighbourhoods in London as the drivers waved Palestinian flags screaming ‘Fuck the Jews! Rape their daughters!’ She wrote of explosives thrown into a crowd of Jews in New York’s Diamond District, of a mob of pro-Palestinian demonstrators who beat up patrons of a Los Angeles restaurant after asking if they were Jewish. The horrors she documents should arouse the left’s outrage, alarm, and a show of solidarity.
Except they don’t, because Barlow is a Zionist. Last May, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and as antisemitism soared in the West, a Twitter mob descended on her with the clear aim of humiliating and silencing her. Hundreds of trolls responded to her every tweet and article with the words ‘Eve Fartlow.’ A puerile horde comprised of self-declared defenders of the Palestinians jeered and hounded a young Jewish woman who writes about rising antisemitism and the shocking ways it is becoming normalised.
On May 25 Barlow responded in an article for Tablet, describing how during the hostilities Jews like her, who advocate ‘for themselves and their brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine’ were subjected to a dehumanising, abusive online experience so extreme she termed it ‘the world’s first social media pogrom’. One juvenile fart tweet is pathetic; multiplied by thousands it is a frighteningly effective way to target Jews and anyone else who protests antisemitism. And, as Barlow notes, vehement online abuse leads to violent attacks on Jews in the real world—as the events in May demonstrated.
The left ignored the eruption of antisemitism—or worse. The Nation, venerable institution of American left liberalism, ridiculed Barlow. In an essay titled ‘A Fart Joke Is Not a Pogrom,’ Talia Lavin accuses Barlow of narcissism and solipsism and otherwise seeks to discredit her. Barlow advocates a two-state solution and calls the loss of every life in the Israel-Palestine conflict ‘a tragedy’, but according to Lavin she espouses ‘a ferocious iteration of Zionism’. Barlow provided a harrowing account of often violent antisemitism in the U.S. and Europe during the 11-day hostilities, but Lavin addresses none of this. After briefly noting that ‘anti-Semitism had dire consequences around the time of the article’s publication—a brick thrown through the window of a Manhattan Jewish business, a swastika etched into a Salt Lake City synagogue’, she launches, in a seeming non sequitur, into an exposition on the ‘successful endeavor of the Zionist political project’. Barlow is transformed from a Jew who decries antisemitism into a metaphor for a ‘political project’ that all good progressives know is reactionary and racist. Antisemitism counts for nothing when it is called out by Zionists.
In my party the word was uttered with a hiss: ‘Zionistssss.’ The sibilant syllables evoke all that is evil and equate it with the Jewish state and those who defend its right to exist. The word is unmoored from any consideration of Zionism as an actual, historically derived thing in the world. In its attitude of total enmity, it airily dismisses the fact that Zionism was, among other things, a Jewish response to extreme and violent antisemitism culminating in the Holocaust. Israel was founded as and became a refuge for Jewish men, women and children who had survived the death camps, had their entire families extinguished, or both. Holding this fact in mind, I want you to really consider, just for a moment, how obscene it is to claim Israel is a state of ‘white settler-colonialists’.
How has this frankly deranged, hate-mongering worldview proliferated? For me the hate was, perversely, the corollary of love. I loved my party and individuals in it with a devotion so fathomless I still feel it, though I took leave of them years ago. Beyond that, I respected them. Some comrades were extraordinarily intelligent, many were very well read, and all were manifestly well-intentioned. I particularly esteemed several highly placed comrades who were Jewish, one of whom was considered an expert on the Middle East. When they fulminated against ‘the Zionist jackboot’ in articles for the party paper, which it was then my job to sell, it didn’t occur to me the tone was suspiciously foam-flecked. Through their actions they gave me permission to hate the Jew, I mean Zionist; there’s no question it satisfied some ugly inner need. And after all—I might have thought, if I had thought—they were Jewish, so it must be okay. As for me, my maternal grandfather’s father and sister were murdered in Auschwitz. No one better call me an antisemite.
Certain of the purity of our hearts, my comrades and I enjoyed the easy comfort of shared convictions. I’ll never forget our horror when a lovely young woman we were hoping to recruit said she was planning a trip to Israel. ‘My God!’ we gasped. ‘Could she be a Zionist?’ It was as if she had expressed an interest in drowning kittens. When she returned we subjected her to an interrogation worthy of our Stalinist foes and finally, when we were persuaded she was not a Zionist, admitted her to membership. Still a cloud of suspicion remained. The mere suggestion of Zionism filled us with the terror of contagion.
I may never have questioned this attitude towards Zionism if I hadn’t had a front-row seat on what’s euphemistically termed the ‘row over antisemitism’ in the British Labour Party. I was living in London when I quit the party, for reasons I won’t go into, and joined Labour to show my support for Jeremy Corbyn. I admired him and was excited about the prospects for a socialist turn in British politics. When accusations of antisemitism against Corbyn and his supporters surfaced, I did what so many others have done: I insisted they were lies, exaggerated by the right-wing media with the aim of destroying the left and defenders of the Palestinians.
But finally I decided to do something extraordinary: I subjected my beliefs to rigorous empirical fact-checking. Rather than reading only the approved sources of information I’d relied on for a quarter century, I investigated opposing views. I can attest that this is very hard to do. When you are a dedicated leftist, simply asking ‘Could the left have a serious problem with antisemitism?’ seems disloyal. You feel you are maligning your own people, making you a nasty person. If you pursue it, you will encounter arguments from the political right—though others will not be—and in your loathing of the right, you will want to dismiss them all. You will encounter Jewish women and men who believe Israel has a right to exist and may even love the country—which is to say, Zionists—and you will want to bolt. You will feel intensely, strangely afraid. You will feel this way because you have been told and believe that Zionism is evil, reactionary and racist. It is not. This belief reflects antisemitism.
But—you will respond—anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. All right, then: think about it. Ask yourself the question that never occurred to me when I was an anti-Zionist: What is Zionism? I urge you to read about it from someone who doesn’t compare it to Nazism, but a short answer is: Zionism is the movement for the self-determination and statehood for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland, Israel. All nations have the right to self-determination. This principle is widely recognised, including by Marxists such as the party I belonged to. So why is it not only acceptable but, on the left, compulsory to adhere to a programme that in its very etymology denies that right to one nation and only one nation, the Jewish one? This is not semantics. ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ expresses terrifying indifference to the fate of the millions of Jews who live on that land. This is the sinister anthem of anti-Zionism.
Okay—you might say—I guess Israel has the right to exist and maybe ‘anti-Zionist’ is an unfortunate term because it suggests otherwise. Still, that doesn’t mean Israel can’t be criticised. That’s really all we’re doing. To which I say, as nicely as possible: hogwash. There are many good reasons to criticise Israel, top of the list being the occupation, which results in terrible suffering for Palestinians. Saying Israel is uniquely evil, however; claiming Israel is carrying out ethnic cleansing; placing Israel—a tiny country with a population of around 9 million—at the centre of every malfeasance around the world: that’s not criticism. That’s demonisation drawing on centuries of Jew-hatred.
But—you will say and believe—you don’t hate Jews. You’ve examined your heart and it doesn’t contain the slightest trace of Jew-hatred. I believe you (most of you, anyway) when you say you don’t harbour conscious antipathy to Jews; but that’s really not the point. Antisemitism is stitched into the fabric of our society in ways that often go undetected—at least by the person in the grip of it. By the person at the receiving end, the perception is very different. When Jews say your language and behaviour are causing them pain, it’s your responsibility to listen to them and educate yourself about antisemitism. To consider the possibility that some of the things you believe are empirically false. Take it from someone who didn’t do these things for a very long time.
For a chilling glimpse of what happens when the left not only doesn’t listen to Jews but goes to war against them, leftists around the world should look at Britain. Antisemitism on the British left has metastasised. Jeremy Corbyn’s project began as a celebration of socialism and has putrified into a festival of antisemitism. The antisemitism was always there—most clearly in the Palestinian solidarity movement in which Corbyn was a leading figure—but his ascendancy to Labour Party leadership also inspired many from the far left (including, as mentioned, me) to flock into the party. And it was open season on ‘Zionistsss.’ Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, claimed Zionists collaborated with Hitler during World War II and that Hitler supported Zionism. A party councillor shared a meme of a blood-drenched hook-nosed Israeli soldier with the claim ‘The modern state of Israel was created by the Rothschilds.’ A Labour council candidate was found to have posted on social media that schools were ‘brainwashing us and our children into thinking that the bad guy was Hitler. What have the Jews done good in this world??’ Medieval-style blood libels, Holocaust denial, Hitler apologies, conspiracy theories about Israel being responsible for everything from 9/11 to pedophilia to ISIS… This was the mood music of the Corbyn years.
A particularly blatant expression of antisemitism might result in a brief suspension which would later be quietly lifted; the majority were tacitly condoned. As the reports of antisemitism grew deafening, Corbyn and his followers reached for the oldest trick in the book: accusing Jews who complained about antisemitism of being duplicitous schemers for evil, i.e., ‘Zionist agents of a media smear.’ Alan Johnson, editor of this publication, issued a devastating report documenting hundreds of cases of antisemitism among Labour members, elected figures, constituencies and organisations, and the leadership’s repeated failures to discipline them. Corbyn and his supporters ignored it. Finally in 2020 the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission issued a lengthy report concluding they had found ‘serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints’ in the party. Corbyn sneered at the report, immediately issuing a statement opining that the problem of antisemitism was ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons’. For this despicable response he was rightly suspended.
Over one year on, the leading lights of the British far left are men and women who have been repeatedly accused and often disciplined for antisemitism. On social media and in activist groups, they rail against the ‘witch hunt’ they darkly suggest is being orchestrated by the Israeli government. Flinging the ubiquitous hashtag #ItWasAScam, Corbyn’s defenders dismiss in toto the mountains of evidence of Labour Party antisemitism. Meanwhile, in Facebook groups such as the plaintively named ‘Jeremy Corbyn should have been Prime Minister,’ commenters vie for the most vitriolic denunciations of Israel and fervid adoration of Corbyn. I am disgusted by their antisemitism, stubborn disregard of facts and messianic fervour, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand it.
Here’s a story. When I was in that Trotskyist group, I was for a time on its newspaper’s editorial board. An opponent organisation that we hated, with zeal rivaling that towards ‘the Zionistsss,’ accused our Great Leader of having made a blatantly racist remark years earlier, and he was furious at us for failing to sufficiently defend him against this slander. Yet even as I joined the other malefactors in sincerely groveling for forgiveness, in a repudiated pocket of my brain I knew, and I knew my fellow accused also knew: the Great Leader did make that racist remark. The evidence existed in black and white, in a readily available public transcript. Yet even though I ‘knew’, I can honestly say I didn’t allow myself to know until well after I’d quit.
It’s incredibly difficult to see facts that jeopardise your very sense of belonging. We all need this sense, a warm refuge of comradeship and meaning; above all, a loved and respected leader who gives us a sense of security. Challenging the core beliefs of your anti-Zionist community will be hard and painful. It may throw into question seemingly everything you believe and your place in the world. Do it anyway. Antisemitism is vile and it is increasing everywhere, including on the left. As a socialist—and I do still consider myself some kind of socialist—I call on you to reflect.
Antisemitism does not only come from antisemites. The world is not so easily divided into antisemites and non-antisemites, black and white. Particularly when it comes from the left, antisemitism exists in shades of grey: nebulous feelings and beliefs that morph according to circumstances. Sometimes antisemitism pits people against their own Jewish identities. It echoes ancient lies about Jews and makes some otherwise well-meaning people believe them at some level—no matter how sincerely they proclaim that they don’t. And it frightens and angers me that there is so little willingness on the left to reflect on this, or on history. The Holocaust was possible not simply because the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews, but because enough of German society shared enough of the Nazis’ beliefs about Jews to find their ‘solution’ acceptable. As for the rest, enough people just didn’t care what happened to Jews. It took long-standing murky, distorted perceptions about Jews for the Holocaust to be not only conceived but horrifically realised. It took myriad shades of grey.
I don’t know where today’s antisemitism is headed, but it strikes a terrible fear in my heart. So I beseech you, anti-Zionists: Think it possible that you may be mistaken.