Tony Greenstein’s extended commentcriticising my review of Gilad Atzmon’s new book The Wandering Who is indicative of a political method that can only lead to a ‘dialogue of the deaf’. It is a characteristic flaw of the fragmented far left that in political disputes someone is quoted out of context in such a way as to distort the meaning of their views, and a whole extended narrative is concocted to attack the falsified or caricatured version. This is not a good method, it not only actually leaves one’s interlocutor’s real views untouched, but it also makes the exchange impossible to follow to the uninitiated layperson.
Such practices make the left a laughing stock. In this case, however, there is an additional element of communalism in that Atzmon is being ‘punished’ by left-wing members of his own Jewish community not merely for being right or wrong about something, but also for speaking ‘against’ his own people. The peculiar ferocity of the attack not only on Atzmon, but also on anyone who disagrees with these people’s most extreme characterisations, is shown by the contribution of another Jewish leftist, Evildoer, who baldly admits he does not seek a rational discussion at all with leftists who disagree with him about Atzmon.
Be that as it may, this odd method is shown by Greenstein’s own initial comment that Atzmon’s alleged anti-semitism is ‘largely ignored’ in my review. He must have been reading a completely different piece of writing, since the main subject of the review from beginning to end is the controversy about Atzmon’s alleged anti-semitism. But Tony Greenstein is not illiterate, this is rather communal-speak for ‘he does not think that Atzmon is a racist’. In other words, ‘largely ignored’ is a dishonest code for ‘I don’t agree with the way this has been addressed’. But instead of saying, as a normal discourse would, “ you have drawn this conclusion, but you are wrong – here is why…” and proceeding to give some reasons, he pretends that the question has been ignored and proceeds to give a long spiel on that basis. Which is simply like firing blanks.
Greenstein pretends that I did not address Atzmon’s putative holocaust denial, but of course I did and proceeded to the conclusion that while he undoubtedly has doubts about the truth of the holocaust or aspects of it, he has not taken a definitive position. I also gave reasons, taken from the Israeli context, why someone reacting against the racist crimes of their own state, not decades before their birth but right in front of their eyes, might mistakenly but comprehensibly develop such doubts or even disbelief when a narrative about historical crimes is used to justify racist crimes in the here and now.
Greenstein rattles off a list of Jews who have made this very error and pretends that I did not address this question (when actually I called it a ‘monumental blunder’). Again what he really objects to is the conclusions I drew about those who have made this kind of error. That they are generally misguided opponents of Israel racism. This is not the same as not addressing it.
And on one point of detail, outside the subject of my review, Greenstein accuses the Russian/Swedish/Israeli Jewish journalist Israel Shamir of being a fully paid-up fascist. In fact his views are an odious form of Stalinism; he certainly does favour alliances with racists and nationalists, with the Machiavellian and grossly unprincipled aim of manipulating the supporters of one form of far right politics to supposedly neutralise another form – the Western-backed free-market form. This is the Red-Brown block that many Stalinist nostalgics are involved in in Russia at the moment.
This is a reactionary fantasy; the most degenerate form of popular frontism, quite in tune with previous examples of such alliances with one reactionary force against a ‘greater evil’ in the history of Stalinism like Stalin’s ‘rehabilitation’ of the anti-semitic Russian Orthodox Church during the ‘Great Patriotic War’ against Hitler. For ‘Hitler’ Shamir, embracing both Stalin and the church, substitutes the Zionists and West. Stalin’s rehabilitation of the church led to such events as the post-war anti-semitic ‘Doctors Plot’ and anti-Jewish purges in Eastern Europe, so it is hardly surprising that someone who embraces a similar idea today would end up sounding pretty rancid.
On the other hand, he might well strike a chord with some Jews repelled by Israel’s repeated massacres of Palestinians, justified repeatedly by reference to the need for Israeli ‘security’ against the threat of another holocaust. Shamir is just one of many voices in the Middle East region who speak out against Israeli crimes using a discourse tinged with hostility to Jews – amalgamating Zionism, being Jewish and Judaism as a religion. The only thing that makes him a bit different is that he is himself Jewish.
Shamir is undoubtedly a deeply alienated character who, however has a common origin with other Jewish/Israeli ‘self-haters’ and some authority because of his long-standing support for the Palestinians. Objectionable many of his views may be, but as a Stalinist, he still has one foot in the workers movement and his influence over some dissident Jewish circles arguably derives from that. He, and those influenced by him, still have to be dealt with by means of debate according to the norms of the labour movement.
Greenstein produces no evidence for his claim that Atzmon’s view of Jews is ‘an essentialist view based on a racist outlook’. None whatsoever – all he can do is misquote Atzmon in a particularly silly way. On his own blog, Greenstein’s co-thinker Brian Robinson admitted misquoting Atzmon in this way, his clear statements that he did not consider Jews to be an ethnic group or ‘race’ at all being twisted to say the exact opposite. In Robinson’s case, he at least acknowledged that he had made a mistake, but Greenstein would hear nothing of it, saying “I have no doubt he [sees Jews as a race – RS] – however he defines it”. No evidence of this, but much to the contrary.
In one of the most amazing passages in his comment, Greenstein writes:
“ The description of himself as a ‘proud, self-hating Jew’ is in itself an inverted form of racism. Why? Because the term ‘self-hater’ which the Nazis used against German anti-fascists presupposes that all Jews (except for this psychologically crippled anti-national minority) is itself racist, a concept that Atzmon adopts, he doesn’t fight against it.”
This is tortured. Spokespeople for Israel, a virulently racist state, routinely abuse their Jewish critics as ‘self-haters’ in the manner that racists and neo-Nazis in the West abuse white anti-racists as ‘race-traitors’. When abused in this way, it is perfectly natural for a spirited anti-racist to give them the big up-yours and say, “yes, I am a race-traitor and proud of it”. Do you take that literally, and start screaming about ‘inverted racism’? That would be an incredibly foolish, sectarian response, as is this piece of nonsense from Tony Greenstein.
And then there is this strange and incoherent point:
“ You say that ‘If he were a racist/essentialist, he would not believe in the possibility of renouncing Jewishness.’ Not so. Take Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Black woman who has become one of the foremost racists in the Netherlands…”
It is complete nonsense to call Ayaan Hirsi Ali a racist or an essentialist. Greenstein does not even attempt to show what Hirsi Ali regards as the ‘essence’ of being black. Incidentally, she now lives in the US, not the Netherlands, and works for the American Enterprise Institute – a reactionary neocon think tank. If she holds ‘essentialist’ views about blacks, I wonder what she thinks of such black American capitalist politicians such as Barack Obama, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, etc? Come to think of it, what does she think of herself, her skin is black after all?
Ayyan Hirsi Ali is a reactionary figure, but not because she holds ‘essentialist’ views about blacks. She does not, and there is no need to resort to such absurdities to condemn people like her. It is because she is an Islamophobe, who has thrown her lot in with a neo-con programme to ‘liberate’ the Muslim world, including particularly her own people, from Islam, that she is dangerous.
Her misguided views mean that she can be used by racists as a tool – as indeed she was by Theo Van Gogh – but it is absurd to say that she holds ‘essentialist’ views about blacks or even Somalis. She wants the West to ‘liberate’ all her people so they can become ‘liberated’ like her. That is a dangerous enough position, but there is no need to caricature her as “essentialist’ to condemn her for this.
While in the West, many white racists use Islamophobia as a cover for their racism, and their Islamophobia can therefore be regarded as a manifestation of racism, to brand a black female victim of reactionary practices who has been driven to a reactionary response as a racist or essentialist is just silly and undermines the real case against her by reducing it to absurdity.
One could make some limited parallel between Atzmon’s position and Hirsi Ali’s if Israeli Jews were an oppressed people and Atzmon were calling on some major anti-semitic world power to ‘liberate’ Jews from their Jewishness. Who knows, if that were true, he might even have some humanly understandable reason for taking such a position (though in the real world it is the Palestinians who need to be liberated – fat chance of that!)
Hirsi Ali certainly does have such a reason, having been subjected to genital mutilation and other very unpleasant experiences in Somalia. But unfortunately, her undoubted oppression has led her to act as an agency for very powerful forces that are far worse than the people who did that to her, and threaten the whole of humanity. Whereas Atzmon has done nothing of the sort. The comparison between them is fatuous – Hirsi Ali is tragically an agent of imperialism, whereas Atzmon is an opponent of imperialism.
Greenstein’s points about ‘honourary whites’ in South Africa, or how a few part-Jewish functionaries were exempt from Nazi laws, merely prove that since race is a fiction, systems based on race distinctions do not work and therefore hypocrisy becomes necessary in practice. They show nothing about whether someone holding ‘essentialist’ views about ‘race’ can at the same time believe that people can change their ‘race’. To hold both views is not possible, they are opposites. This is another non-argument.
As indeed it is when he writes:
“You also don’t mention the very focus on identity because if you did you’d find it isn’t fixed, unchanging. This is an essentialist viewpoint consequence on a racist outlook. Jewish identity changed with Zionism and is changing again as increasing layers break from its stranglehold”
I’ve not read anything from Atzmon that implies that Jewish identity is fixed and unchanging. His focus seems to be, not on identity per se, but on the use of identity for political purposes, i.e. identity politics. He does not seem to have any problem with Jews whose identity is a religious one, only with those who claim a secular identity and still emphasise their Jewishness as a political category.
I don’t see how his theory about third category Jews (as opposed to the first and second category, i.e. religious Jews, and those Jews who generally regard their identity as Jewish but do not politicise that) is essentialist. It applies as I see it to those who make their communal identity a political issue. He may be wrong to say that Zionism and Tony Greenstein’s kind of political Jewishness are fundamentally the same thing, but how is that essentialist? It is a theory about the politicisation of identity, not identity itself.
Greenstein’s point about the Jewish socialist-atheist couple who had their young son circumcised despite their atheism and publicised it in the Jewish press, in linked to this logic. Apparently to criticise this behaviour is ‘essentialist’, i.e. racist. Nonsense! It is an example of how this kind of identity politics makes a mockery of professed socialism and secularism, not to mention atheism.
I guess I just don’t understand Greenstein’s reasoning here about how this was a “this was a brave attempt to raise a taboo amongst the organised Jewish community”. Logic says that it would have been brave – but not wise – if they had done the opposite and publicised that. Wise would be to refrain from the practice and respect the privacy of their child. But how is it ‘brave’ to publicly go along with such an established practice to prove your ‘legitimacy’ to the ‘community’? It’s a rank anomaly and indefensible.
Going back to the Hirsi Ali case for a moment. If some atheist, socialist Somalis had done a similar but much more unpleasant procedure to their female child, and publicised the fact to show that they wanted to be seen as a ‘legitimate’ part of the ‘community’, would Greenstein not have been very loud in his condemnation of them for ‘communalism’? I suspect he would, and rightly so. And not just because of the far more unpleasant and utterly harmful nature of the procedure involved (which would also attract police attention). But also because of the hypocrisy and communalist element of the point they were making by this action.
There is another strange aspect of Greenstein’s posting. His theoretical critique of Atzmon appears to imply that the only analysis of Israel and Zionism that is not essentialist and not anti-semitic is – his own particular take on a Marxist analysis. The colonial-settler analysis and all the wide spectrum of disagreements with it on the Western left, let alone the spread of possible alternative analyses that might be formulated in the Middle East, represent only one strand. Good material for a debate, not so good for an excommunication.
On the US Zionist lobby, Tony Greenstein writes:
“I don’t doubt that Jews are over represented in the US Senate and British houses of parliament but only if one takes Jews as some form of collective, this mysterious ‘Jewish power’ that Atzmon is wedded to.”
This is so blasé, and effectively seems to dismiss the concerns of many decent people – not about the representation of Jews per se, but of rabid supporters of Israel with no regard for the democratic rights of Palestinians or anyone who sympathises with them. Dismissing the existence of the lobby as a question to raise and make a fuss about, denouncing anyone who raises concerns about it as anti-semitic, can only fuel conspiracy theories. Greenstein is vaguely on the right track in saying. “There are quite rational explanations such as the use of Jews as an ideological cover for western imperialism “
But this is not an either-or situation. Either the lobby exists, or it is some kind of mysterious ideological mirage that acts as a cover for imperialism. The truth is that it is a like a guard dog in domestic politics, just as Israel acts somewhat like a guard dog for imperialism in the Middle East. It is composed of willing, highly committed political Zionists – mainly Jewish – with a loyalty ultimately to Israel, but it is allowed to operate with great latitude. Even to intimidate parts of the US bourgeoisie who are out of step with the mainstream – but ultimately under the control of the dominant wing of the US ruling class who support the US strategic alliance with Israel for their own interests, not that of Israel.
This attempt to twist obvious and elementary political reality continues when Greenstein writes:
“So now Atzmon is not a Jewish heretic, battling against an establishment as per Spinoza. He is a Jewish reactionary. Hence his embarrassingly laudatory comments re Obama and his illusions in Amir Peretz, the Israeli Labour Leader prior to his role in launching the invasion of Lebanon in 2006!”
I’m shocked! What a terrible reactionary-fascistic swine that Atzmon fellow must be. He had illusions that the first black President of the US might bring some improvement! And that Israeli Labour’s first leader from a Sephardic background might do something also! It is just crazy sectarianism to try to prove Atzmon’s ‘reactionary’ credentials on this basis. In reality, these kinds of illusions put him quite clearly on the liberal left. As of course, Greenstein would be well aware if he were talking about the same illusions in anyone other than Atzmon.
He is really upset because of Atzmon’s flawed, but quite cutting criticism of his own bundist views from an assimilationist standpoint:
“ A Jewish secular identity is quite possible as the Bund demonstrated and which Atzmon hates. For many, opposition to Zionism also constitutes a major part of their Jewish identity, but we too are Zionists! I happen to think that a non-Zionist Jewish identity is quite possible, for a long period of time and would possibly flourish in the absence of a Zionist state but that is for the future. Atzmon’s conception though is totally racist and essentialist.”
Lots of things are ‘quite possible’, but that does make them rational or right? Atzmon’s remarks about the Bund planning to ‘rob’ the ruling class reflect his deep suspicion of Jewish ‘tribalism’ and his own liberal, anti-Marxist prejudices.
But here Greenstein is not acting as a disinterested forecaster of what ‘may’ happen. His political strategy centrally involves using Jewish identity as a weapon against Zionism: as in ‘Jews Against Zionism’, ‘Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, etc. He is not just defending the element of the Bund that is socialist, i.e. hostile to the ruling class, but he is also defending its separateness and hostility to voluntary assimilation.
The correct position for socialists to take in this a debate around these issues should be obvious: yes to ‘robbing the ruling class’ (i.e. expropriation of the expropriators) and yes to voluntary assimilation (while of course opposing all forced assimilation and oppression). Why on earth should socialists spend time trying to defend the separatist project of a defunct, failed movement of a century ago? Whether or not a Jewish identity should continue to exist is up to … history.
It is outside the parameters of what socialists should be doing to attack someone – however mistaken in their way of expressing them – who holds that the best thing that such an identity could do is to self-dissolve into the wider human community. Atzmon could just as easily come back and say … “Hitler was hostile to Jewish assimilation; Greenstein is also hostile to Jewish assimilation, therefore ….”
The point is obvious. This kind of branding of assimilationism as akin to exterminationism is actually a form of communalist politics in itself. Atzmon is mistaken in labelling this as Zionism, since Greenstein is obviously a committed opponent of Zionism and the whole project of a Jewish territorial state in the Levant. But it is an understandable error, mistaking one form of communalism for another is not difficult, especially for someone who is being targeted by both at the same time!
Greenstein flagrantly contradicts himself when he writes:
“I don’t accept the equivalence between Palestinians who deny the holocaust (and who are on the right of Palestinian/Arab politics) and this alleged ‘minority of alienated, radicalised Israeli Jews’. In fact its major proponents aren’t Israeli – Dan McGowan, Paul Eisen, Jeff Blankfort, Israel Shamir etc. If anything it is a section of diaspora Jews who have become so ashamed of being Jewish that they have given a free pass to Nazism.”
Actually, the two most prominent of whom Greenstein speaks, Atzmon and Shamir, are certainly Israeli to the extent that both have served In the Israeli armed forces. Given the whole ethos of aliyah, the prestige of Israel among diaspora Jews, the large number particularly in the US with family connections in Israel and who have spent time there, and the political expression of that in terms of the Israeli lobby etc., the division between diaspora Jews and Israelis is often quite thin.
Greenstein knows not what he says, in saying that they are ‘ashamed of being Jewish’, he is actually conceding the core of my case. Although his phraseology is derogatory – he evidently disapproves very strongly of those who are ‘ashamed’ of their Jewishness, he does not even ask why this might be. Why should relatively young Jews, those too young to have any life experience of the earlier historical period when Jews actually suffered real oppression, feel so ‘ashamed’ to be Jewish that they would, in his words, give a ‘free pass’ to the Nazis (actually this is an exaggeration in most of these cases, apart from Eisen). How on earth can this happen in the first place?
It’s perfectly obvious why. Those who are brought up with the idea that they are a superior people, chosen, born to rule over the Arabs, once they see through the racism and inhumanity that sustains that idea, are highly likely to dismiss the historical accounts of past oppression that are cynically and systematically used today to justify today’s crimes against Arabs. Greenstein, who has the good fortune to have been politicised at an early age in a left-wing environment and have assimilated elements of socialist Jewish and non-Jewish culture, shows an incredible lack of understanding for people with an entirely different experience.
If even a small minority of Jews feel so guilty about Israeli crimes that they are prepared to consider that maybe the history of Nazi atrocities is a pack of lies, that is a tragedy. And it is 100% the fault of those who carry out those Israeli crimes and create the conditions for that.
Guilt about racist crimes is very familiar among anti-racist youth in imperialist countries. As in the UB40 lyric:
“There are murders that we must account for
Bloody deeds have been done in my name
Criminal acts I must pay for
And our children will shoulder the blame
`“I’m a British subject, not proud of it, and I carry the burden of shame”.
The difference is that this problem is very unlikely to arise because there is no significant history of oppression of, for instance, English people or white Americans to so deny. Perhaps a white Afrikaner taking the position that his ancestors deserved what they got in the Boer War is nearest to this.
Someone motivated in this way is misguided but well-meaning. Socialists should be debating with such people to try to break them from guilty liberalism to something more profound and useful. Not treating them as a Nazi-like threat. The idea that a small number of Jewish ‘self-haters’ and holocaust sceptics constitute some incipient anti-semitic threat is totally hallucinatory.
Indeed, Greenstein comes close to conceding this when he claims that while these people are no danger to Jews, they are a danger to Palestinians because they supposedly discredit the Palestinian cause by associating it with anti-semitism. But this seems paternalistic, why cannot Palestinians decide these things without a bunch of Jewish political vigilantes deciding it for them? And again, there is this curious double standard since many Palestinians hold similar views. The only realistic conclusion that can be drawn about this is that again, this is communalism. Greenstein and co think they have the right to discipline ‘their’ community. But there is nothing socialist about this view.
The reason why socialists are unremittingly hostile to holocaust deniers is simply because in the post-war Western context such views have not been the result of misunderstanding of historical events. This is stating the blindingly obvious. Those like David Irving, Richard Verrall, etc. were worthy of hatred not because they were holocaust deniers per se, but because they were Hitlerites, who wanted another holocaust, hence the lies.
But what if some Jewish anti-racists come to mistakenly deny the holocaust, as part of an intense guilt reaction to contemporary Israeli-Jewish racism? Is that the same thing? Obviously not – and the paradoxical thing about reading even the most deluded of these writers – Paul Eisen, the author of the Holocaust Wars, is that his motive for saying the bizarre things he does is hostility to the racism of his own people, as he perceives it. This is very visible in his document.
There is no socialist principle that prevents fraternal debate with people who are honestly mistaken to the point of denying the holocaust, as Noam Chomsky once pointed out. Even though Chomsky was mistaken in applying this to the hypocritical racist conman Robert Faurisson, he was right in principle.
To say otherwise is endorse the Zionist view that the Nazi Judeocide was totally unique, and can never be spoken of alongside any other event. When in fact it stands alongside the Armenian genocide, which has been the subject of denial and obfuscation in Israel when Turkey was an Israeli ally, to give one of several events it can be legitimately compared with. It also stands alongside the estimated 10 million Congolese butchered by the Belgian king Leopold II’s ‘Congo Free State’ fiefdom at the beginning of the 20th Century.
And as for the assertion that Palestinians who deny the holocaust are ‘on the right of Palestinian politics’, I wonder how Greenstein measures that left-right spectrum. Does being subservient to Israel and making soothing noises about the past sufferings of the Jewish people, as for instance does the Palestinian Authority, put someone to the right of Hamas (a considerable number of whose militants might well be inclined towards denying the holocaust), or to the left?
How important does Tony Greenstein think the question of the holocaust is in locating Palestinians on a left-right axis? Is it paramount, does it override all other questions, such as one state/two states, whether one supports or opposes Oslo or the Road Map, secular or Islamist, or any other contentious issue of the Palestinian struggle? Is it more important than any other consideration?
If so, is he not just as guilty as the Zionists in seeking to impose another agenda on the Palestinians, putting someone’s likely ignorant and jaundiced view of something that happened more than half a century ago on another continent above their view of the Palestine question in the here and now?
Or is it a secondary issue, overshadowed in importance by a Palestinian militant’s attitude to questions directly concerned with the struggle today? If this is TG’s view, is he therefore minimising the holocaust in importance and reducing it to a level approaching that of other historical events and political questions?
And if he does take this view, why is it wrong to privilege the views of Palestinians on the Palestinian struggle over their views on the holocaust, and not do the same for Jews? Particularly given the fact that Israel Jews, as a people, oppress the Palestinians in the here and now. Surely the attitude of a Jew, particularly an Israeli Jew, on the question of the Palestinians and their right to wage their struggle and expect solidarity now is of considerably more importance than the opinion of a Jew on the historical question of the holocaust? If not, why not? How can these rather important questions be answered?
One thing that these questions underline is this: that if you attempt to privilege a European view on what was essentially a European conflict in analysing questions concerning the Middle East, you will end up in a terrible muddle. It is a commonplace in the Palestinian solidarity movement to say that Arabs do not have the slightest reason to feel guilty about what happened in the Second World War. This was a conflict between imperialist powers whose main acts took place on another continent and whose common objective was to dominate and oppress the colonial world, of which the Arabs were victims, not oppressors.
But there is another group of people in the Middle East who also have no reason to feel guilty about the Second World War – Jews, either Israeli or Israeli-connected! That would seem like an odd thing to say, except that now there is a generation of Jews who have no experience or memory of being oppressed, but live every day with the racism of Israel and its supporters in Europe and America against the Arabs – whose main ideological justification is an evocation of the past sufferings of the Jews.
It is just as natural for liberal Jews to feel like this as it is for the liberal young generation of any other oppressor people. But put these two elements together, and you begin to get some rather unusual results. At least among a particularly alienated and radicalised minority of radical-liberals. This is not a right-wing trend, let alone incipient fascism or Nazism, but a very confused left-liberal development., that needs to be engaged with fraternally, not subjected to pointless and vindictive communalist attacks.
These people are hyper-sensitive towards what they see as ‘Jewish supremacism’ at large in the world. Thus Atzmon sees Zionists as responsible for the credit crunch, basically as far as I can see because the US bourgeoisie and its Israeli allies took major economic risks to prevent a normal, cyclical capitalist recession taking place in the early 2000s.
They used every lever they could find to create a boom and the illusion of prosperity to bolster popular support or acquiescence in the aims of the ‘Project for the New American Century’ – the post 9/11 attack on Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, and hoped for attacks on Iran and Syria. This ‘Project’ was also stuffed with rabid Zionists and supported to the hilt by Israel. And then a few years later it all came crashing down with the worst financial crisis since 1929.
This is factually accurate of course, but also non-materialistic in assigning the primary role to Jewish neocons. In reality, these people’s power derives from being employed as guard dogs for the US ruling class domestically, just as Israel plays a similar role internationally. Their wealth and power is dwarfed by that of the non-Jewish, mainly European-derived US ruling class, who are much more numerous. Wealth and social weight trumps ideology any time in determining who is really in charge. The guard-dog is not in charge of its owner, including in this case.
Atzmon’s reading back of Jewish supremacism into history is of the same ilk. Here he really does come close to echoing some unsavoury stuff with his points about the activities of a Jewish capitalist named Jacob Shiff in giving aid to the Bolsheviks. There may be some truth in this, this man hated the Tsarist regime for its anti-semitism and donated money to the Japanese war effort against the Tsar in 1904-05, apparently. Any enemy of the Tsar was his friend, seemingly.
Atzmon does not characterise the Bolsheviks as Jewish tribalists therefore, indeed he appears to counterpose the ‘tribalist’ Bund to the universalism of the Marxist left (including the Bolsheviks), but in making mischievous points like this against leftists who are persecuting him he is flirting with disaster. But yet again, the motivation for this intellectual endeavour of reading back into very different historical circumstances the undoubted racism and even supremacism (over Arabs anyway) of Israel and its supporters today, is again obvious: liberal guilt.
Guilt at being born into a people dealing out really quite monstrous oppression is a pretty complex matter in political-psychological terms, but it can also be the ante-chamber to a more profound radicalisation. The possibility exists that these people could break from this liberalism in a revolutionary direction. This should not be seen in a crude sense as looking for recruits to some Trotskyist sect or other – that sort of trite perspective will no doubt be greeted with much laughter. Rather, what we are talking about is the opportunity for an organicpolitical development that might play an important role in revolutionary events in the Middle East.
A Jewish current
There are echoes of this also in the otherwise very puzzling development of the leftist magazine Counterpunchin the US, which regularly features material on the Israeli lobby and related questions that is perceived and denounced as anti-semitic by others on the left. Yet again, the authors of this material are almost invariably Jewish. This magazine, and these Jewish ‘anti-semitic’ writers, are certainly a trend on the left fringe of American politics. There is no way that they can be portrayed as on the racist or chauvinist right. This is another odd paradox, connected with the Atzmon issue.
Apart from Zionists, who regularly and mendaciously attack any serious criticism of Israel as ‘anti-semitic’, these phenomena have led to furious denunciations of so-called ‘left’ anti-semitism from others who are generally opposed to Zionism.
The Socialist Workers Party in Britain originally took a different position: in 2005 and since Gilad Atzmon has been featured at their events as a musician and sometimes as a speaker, generating much controversy. Recently, however, with a change of leadership, the SWP have capitulated to the outcry against Atzmon and denounced him in a fairly stupid manner.
The SWP, however, is merely following a rightward trajectory and being dragged along by vociferous critics who are to say the least not exactly honest or non-sectarian in their motivation. Apart from Tony Greenstein, whose views are extensively dealt with above, another vocal critic of the SWP is the ex-SWP and now soft-Stalinist blogger, Andy Newman of ‘Socialist Unity’.
Upon the publication of Gilad Atzmon’s book The Wandering Who?, Andy Newman had a rather poorly argued and bland article published in the Guardian denouncing ‘left anti-semitism’ and in particular Zero Books for allowing Atzmon’s book to be published. Later, on his own blog, he was challenged to give some concrete examples of this ‘left anti-semitism’, when the revolutionary socialist left have generally been the most fervent opponents of racism, including anti-semitism. All Newman could come up with is this:
“Perhaps [Newman’s critic] can explain how the ‘Doctors’ plot’ purge, the campaign in East Germany against ‘Cosmopolitanism’, or the Slansky Affair are examples of ‘taking a lead against anti-Semitism’ ???”
It is peculiar, to say the least, that Newman as someone who spent quite a few years in the SWP, should now believe that quoting the actions of Stalin and his various East European henchman can be used as typifying the attitude of the revolutionary socialist left. The relationship of Stalinism to the genuine left can be best summed up as being on the other end of the ice-pick.
Newman’s embrace of Stalinism and the Chinese Communist Party, and all that goes with these things, seems to have led him effortlessly to believe that his new heroes are suddenly sterling examples of ‘the left’, and where they go wrong, such as with Stalin’s anti-semitic purges, they should be given a jolly good ticking off. Utter nonsense of course, and as trite an example of political and logical degeneration as you are likely to see.
But Newman’s examples do throw some small amount of light on this question. For all the fulminating against ‘left’ anti-semitism that the likes of Newman indulge in, the only concrete examples of it they can find are examples from the history of Stalinism. But no genuine leftist regards Stalinism as a genuine left current. Stalinism is the mortal enemy of the revolutionary socialist left.
And the only other ‘left’ anti-semitism that Newman can find to attack is the work of – a bunch of Jewish ultra-liberals (and one Jewish Stalinist – Israel Shamir)! In other words, this particular form of ‘anti-semitism’ is a purely Jewish phenomenon. Indeed, the case that clarifies this is the case of Shamir, whose ‘anti-semitic’ evolution has led him to embrace – precisely the kind of Stalinist politics and nostalgia that Newman has also embraced. Here is a nice example of this that should make Newman very uncomfortable – much of it could almost have been written by Andy Newman himself! There are many others.
Shamir is both a representative of this very Jewish, ultra-liberal current and a Stalinist. Which is why he paradoxically keeps cropping up on the left, despite his often fiery, Hizbullah-like anti-Jewish pronouncements, which understandably cause alarm to many.
Newman now retrospectively approves the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939-41 as a necessary manoeuvre to defend the Soviet Union in those days. Shamir, however, applies this approach to the present day and wants ‘the left’ – his conception of this is roughly the same as Newman’s – to engage in a similar ‘red-brown’ popular front with old fashioned white supremacists and Nazi remnants to oppose what he sees as the potent far right of today – the US, the Zionists and the Israel lobby.
It appears that these political contradictions have blown Newman’s mind somewhat, as he has started a cowardly, unannounced policy of excluding commenters that point out these facts from his blog, which he still claims is a public space for ‘Socialist Unity’!
Newman’s polemics are an example of manufacturing an allegation out of thin air. ‘Left anti-semitism’ is a myth. If you promote real anti-semitism, essentialist racial hatred of Jews simply for being of Jewish origin, you are an enemy of the left just as if you promote any other kind of racism.
In reality Newman’s nonsense about ‘left’ anti-semitism is a Stalinist-style smear against the far left, and a campaign so unprincipled it is prepared wilfully to give ammunition to supporters of the oppression of the Palestinians, and to witch-hunt those on the left who are entirely correctly prepared to engage fraternally in debate with a confused, persecuted, but in its thrust anti-racist current among Jews that solidarise with the Palestinians.
It would not be the first time that Stalinists have done things like that either, look at Stalin’s arming of the Zionist militias in 1948 through his Czech proxies, that played a major role in the tragedy of the Nakba in the first place. As an aside, it would also be quite interesting to know what Shamir thinks of that, Newman is not the only one with contradictions here.
“Not the same river twice”
Much is disturbing about this campaign about so-called ‘left’ anti-semitism. A century or so, Jews in Europe were regarded as subversives and a revolutionary threat to ‘Christian civilisation’, supposedly being the sponsors of communism, democratic extremism, anarchist terrorism and other forms of subversion. Even Jewish bourgeois were under suspicion of being really opponents of the established order. And indeed, many of the best representatives of Jewish intellectuals were indeed opponents of the established order, and evidenced a genuinely internationalist, cosmopolitan outlook.
Today, that situation has been reversed. It was basically Hitler and Stalin who reversed it. Hitler played the major role in wiping out millions of Jews, preferentially the most radical, since they were targeted also for being communists and socialists as well as Jews. Stalin played a complementary role, as his wiping out of an entire generation of genuine communists in Russia also coincidentally involved wiping out another crucially important layer of Jewish radicals. Between them they committed a genocide – of most of the Jewish revolutionary tradition. Leaving behind a surviving Jewish population that was pretty traumatised, deradicalised and susceptible to a reactionary nationalist outlook.
The decline of anti-semitism today is the product of the decline of a counterrevolutionary paranoia about Jews. The reason for that is simple, the revolutionary movement in which Jews played an important role has ceased to exist, and Jews have ceased to play the revolutionary role they once did. Now Jews, as a result of the Zionist project, are an oppressor, colonial-type people in the Middle East and a key, if subordinate, part of the establishment of the most powerful imperialist nation, the United States, and to a lesser degree in other Western nations.
Thus the material and political basis for anti-semitism has completely disappeared. Now the dominant reactionary discourse is not about defending Christendom from the Jews and Bolsheviks, but of defending ‘Judeo-Christian civilisation’ from the Muslim hordes.
The only place of any significance where anti-semitism has any potency is the Middle East, and perhaps among the odd Muslim politician elsewhere in the world who may be influenced by events in the Middle East. It is a regrettable reaction to the Zionist colonisation and an expression of impotent rage at the unremitting nature of Zionist humiliation and oppression of Arabs. And a few deeply alienated Jewish radicals have come to echo some of that ‘anti-semitism’, which though it may appear unsavoury and echo the rhetoric of another age, is in fact an ideology of the oppressed.
Neo-Nazis today in the west are a dead-end fringe of cranks, doomed to disappear when the old ones die. Nazism may be on its last legs, but fascism is not. The two are not synonymous, not by a long chalk. Now there are fascist groups in Europe who carry the Israeli flag, who actively seek to recruit Jews, and who unremittingly incite hatred of immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, in Europe. In America, the Zionist lobby itself plays a key role in inciting hatred of Arabs and Muslims, along with Christian ultra-rightists. This is obviously a very changed situation from the interwar period when anti-semitism was the major reactionary discourse.
The ancient Greek Philosopher Heraclitus once said that “it is not possible to step into the same river twice”. Meaning, of course, that if you do it again the actual water you will be wading through will be completely different. This is of course a metaphor for life itself.
One of the reasons why neo-Nazism failed as a movement in the decades after World War II was that political conditions were changing. And of course, the Jewish question was a key component of that. It was more and more difficult to promote a counterrevolutionary paranoia of Jewish Bolshevism when mainstream Jewish politics, paralleling developments in Israel of course, was moving away from socialism through liberalism to a pretty conservative, right-wing position. In effect, by sticking to the cult of Hitler and denying the Nazi genocide, neo-Nazis were “trying to step into the same river twice”.
But conversely, one reason why new-style ultra-right and fascist movements – the likes of the EDL, Geert Wilders, etc., that do not look to Hitler, and who target Muslims instead of Jews, are so dangerous, is precisely because they are not trying to “step into the same river twice”. With the fear of immigrant radicalisation, particularly that of Muslims, and the impact of the ‘war on terror’, the ‘river’ that they are trying to step into is virgin territory. That does not mean they cannot be fought and defeated, but it does mean that they are a more potent threat than neo-Nazis ever were in the post war period.
It is difficult to imagine a replay of the Dreyfus case of more than a century ago, where a Jewish military officer of the French General Staff was framed up for treason on the basis of a racist hate campaign that polarised French – and indeed wider European, society into two camps. With the completely changed climate that exists today, such an event, an anti-semitic witchhunt against a prominent figure of major political significance, is very unlikely.
But there is one group of Jews who could easily fall victim of something similar in the modern context. That is, a group of Jews who might conceivably be branded as traitors to ‘Judeo-Christian civilisation’, and become the target of some kind of reactionary victimisation. And if that happens, watch those on the left who have not clarified this issue find all kinds of excuses to either support the victimisation, or to duck for cover. Such an event, if it were to take place, might appear very different to the Dreyfus case in form, but in content it would be very similar.
We have already seen elements of this kind of capitulation on the left with the refusal of many, most notably the SWP, to defend Julian Assange of Wikileaks. Part of this is as a result of the pressure of reactionary feminists in joining the outcry over the concocted sexual allegations against him. But another important element of this is the outcry over his association with the ‘Jewish traitor and anti-semite’, Israel Shamir. There are certainly echoes of the Dreyfus case in the frameup of Assange, who like Dreyfus is no angel or proletarian militant, but nevertheless whose defence is a question of class principle.
This is an important issue. As the moral authority of Zionism breaks down, given the lack of authority of the genuine internationalist left, there are likely to be more Jews radicalised along these flawed channels. It is very likely such people will play an important role in the future. Clarity on this now will help arm the genuine left for future political battles in which such people may well feature in some form. As opposed to being misled by pathetic born-again Stalinists and Jewish bundist/communalists many of whom still seem to think they are fighting in a completely different, pre-WWII context.