Anti-Semitism, Zionism and the changing politics of the left

Today, in the US and most of western Europe, systematic anti-Semitism is restricted to small pockets of opinion. That’s the good news. The bad news is that ideologically driven anti-Semitism is becoming bolder and casual prejudice against Jews remains widespread. A survey conducted by ComRes in 2018 found that almost one in five Europeans believe anti-Semitism is a response to the everyday behaviour of Jewish people. In many countries, recorded anti-Semitic abuse is rising and there have been murderous attacks by jihadis in Europe and the far-right in the US.

The left responds unevenly to these developments. Progressives are quick to condemn anti-Semitism when it stems from the alt-right. However, anti-Semitism also manifests itself within the left, often in the context of criticism of Israel, and among minorities who are themselves victims of institutional prejudice. In some cases, instead of addressing the problem, leftists complain that anti-Semitism has been “weaponised” by the right, by centrists and Zionists. Of course it has at times, but it doesn’t follow that the accusations are fictions. The left’s failure to confront anti-Semitism effectively is a gift to its enemies.

It was not always like this. For much of the 20th century, it was the political right that appeared hospitable to anti-Semitism. Before the Nazis murdered two out of every three Jews in Europe, Jews on the continent were numerous and mostly poor. A clutch of movements aimed to combine socialism with Jewish peoplehood. Labour Zionism was one: it envisioned a socialist future in a Jewish national home in Palestine. In the early decades of the cold war, after the creation of Israel in 1948, social democrats and trade unionists vaunted the new state as a model of non-Soviet democratic socialism. For the most part, they disavowed the displacement and injustices endured by Palestinians.

In The Lions’ Den, Susie Linfield, a professor of journalism at New York University, asks how it is that “Zionist” has now become a dirty word among the international left. She testifies to the brutal consequences of Israel’s dominion in the Occupied Territories and she mourns that Israel has “come to deny the national rights of a neighbouring people”. But this does not fully account for the idea, widespread in the radical left, that it would be correct and possible to remove Israel from the map and replace it with a single secular state in which Jews become a minority. To understand this, Linfield asks us to consider not only how Israel has changed but the left too.

From the Algerian and Tunisian revolutions in the 1950s, anti-imperialism began to replace anti-fascism as the primary principle driving the international left. This shift, which began well before the occupation, underpins what Linfield sees as the left’s departure from reality regarding Israel. Notwithstanding Zionism’s sometimes antagonistic relationship to British imperialism, and the fact that Mizrahim (Jews whose origins lie in the Middle East) comprise around half of Israel’s Jewish population, Israel is taken to represent the last bastion of white, settler colonialism.

Linfield explores her theme through the writing of a galaxy of intellectuals. Not all of her subjects advocate a single state, but she convicts most of them of either naivety or dishonesty in how they assess the willingness of the Arab states and the Palestinian people to accept Israel’s existence. Linfield’s heroes are the Tunisian Jew Albert Memmi and the Irish-born academic Fred Halliday, whom she commends for their attempts to combine what is ethically defensible with a determination “to live responsibly, inside history”. Both were advocates of partition and two states, and neither nurtured fantasies about Jews and Arabs living together harmoniously.

Linfield is critical of both Israel’s intransigence and Palestinian irredentism, while admitting that the symmetry is unequal — “Israelis have attained a state” — and scorning the settlers’ belief that the boundaries of a sovereign state are flexible, “like an accordion”.

But it is at this point that Linfield’s ethical realism falters. What does it mean to live responsibly within history in Israel and Palestine today? When do facts on the ground constitute a new and irreversible reality? She makes a valiant case for the viability of partition and a two-state solution but is not optimistic.

Linfield deals with anti-Semitism briskly. Of course Israel’s critics are not necessarily anti-Semitic, she says; it is just that sometimes they are. For Bari Weiss, however, anti-Semitism is a growing danger to Jews and to the US. A New York Times journalist, she has written her new book as a wake-up call.

Born in Pittsburgh, Weiss was shaken by the deadly attack on the city’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. She is revolted by white supremacists at Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us”, appalled by leftists who characterise Israel as the last bastion of colonialism and alarmed by the danger posed to Jews and liberal values by radical Islam.

Most Jews outside Israel feel attached to the Jewish state but they also thrive where liberal freedoms win out. To the extent that Israel’s policies and practices deny core liberal principles and values, they present diaspora Jews and their friends with a challenge. The resulting tension becomes more severe with each passing year.


It is the case that some Zionists claim anti-semitism where none is to be seen. It is also the case some anti-Zionists claim there is no anti-semitism where many or most Jews are alarmed by tropey rhetoric. If neither side can be convinced of their errors, where does that leave diaspora Jews? In a few decades, will Jews leave America en masse the way they are currently leaving (fleeing?) Europe?

Article URL :

%d bloggers like this: