The Contemporary Left Antisemitism exchange, part 3: On Corbyn, Trump and the mainstreaming of racism
David Hirsh is a senior lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and the founder of Engage, a campaign against academic boycotts of Israel. Hirsh is a graduate of City University, London. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy and Social Theory and a PhD from the University of Warwick. Hirsh won the Philip Abrams Prize for the best first book in sociology from the British Sociological Association in 2004 for his book Law Against Genocide: Cosmopolitan trials.
You devote quite a significant portion of the book (and its epilogue) to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, about whom you write some very strong, very explicit words:
Some say that Corbyn’s antisemitism is only a kind of abstract antisemitism; that he would not want to enact laws or policies against Jews; that only a practical and immediate threat is genuine, antisemitism. Others say that Corbyn has changed, that he no longer speaks at the annual Al Quds demonstration in London, with its Hezbollah flags and its antisemitic rhetoric; he now supports a two-state solution; he would no longer dare to jump to the defence of antisemites as he did when he was an unimportant back bencher.
It is difficult to know exactly what the consequences would be of having a Prime Minister who has for so long been connected to antisemitic ways of thinking and antisemitic movements…
Now, as Corbyn was on the verge of being the leader of Great Britain, and as many Britons who do not see him as an antisemite might be suspicious of this language, I wanted to ask you about whether you had any hesitations about using explicit language and making such accusations against influential mainstream leaders.
This problem has been raised regarding members of the Trump administration: Some say that accusing populist leaders of antisemitism or of racism could end up galvanizing the more extremist elements of their movements and worsening the situation.
My question: Is there not a certain danger in using explicit language and voicing antisemitism accusations about mainstream national figures? How does one know when to go all out and when to hold one’s tongue?
I’d like to thank you once again for this exchange.
My words are strong and explicit, but they are also careful and precise. I do not say that Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite. The reason for this is not either that I think he is, or that I think he isn’t. The reason is that one of the key points I make in my book is that antisemitism, especially the kind which is finding its way into the mainstream today, is not primarily a personal moral failing.
I am more interested in how it is a social phenomenon, out there in the world, than how it is inside specific bad individuals. It exists in the cultural and political spaces in between our inner worlds. It is about shared meanings and accepted ways of thinking and it is about what kind of political alliances we find tempting. I am focused on the antisemitic things that people do or say and what consequences these have, not on the cleanliness of souls.
In the book, I talk about the inquiry into antisemitism which Corbyn initiated in the Labour Party. He was forced to do this because in the Spring of 2016 there was a steady stream of examples coming into the public domain of antisemitic things that Labour Party members were saying and doing. The inquiry failed to link these examples of things that everybody could recognize as antisemitic to the underlying political problem of irrational and disproportional hostility to Israel. Corbyn himself had brought the culture of antizionism and BDS into the center of the Party, and he had presided over the normalizing of hostility to Israel as a symbolic issue. It was not only about Israelis and Palestinians, it also became a marker of a person’s support for radical politics, something symbolic of their whole identity. The inquiry, however, preferred to see antisemitism as a characteristic of bad people, and it did a little to strengthen the Party’s ability to expel them. It conceded that there were bad apples in the Labour barrel but it insisted that the accelerated appearance of bad apples required no critical look at the barrel.
The question is not whether Corbyn himself is secretly an admirer of Hitler or a hater of Jews; he is neither. The question is about his positive support for Hamas and Hezbollah, his relationship with the politics if Israel-boycott and the way he jumps to the defence of people who use blood libel and conspiracy theory to whip up anger with Israel. The question is how his politics may play itself out in future difficult times.
Some will say that a man who embraces antisemitic politics, alliances and individuals is himself thereby rightly defined as an antisemite. Others may say that this person is not an antisemite if he has no self-conscious hostility to Jews and if he considers himself to be a fierce opponent of antisemitism. This isn’t a question that I really take sides on. My book is about the mainstreaming of the phenomenon, and about Jeremy Corbyn’s part in facilitating that, not about his inner essence.
I think it is reasonable to argue that President Trump has an analogous relationship to racist politics. He came to power whipping up hostility to Mexicans, as rapists, and to Muslims, as terrorists. What he himself thinks, in the privacy of his own head, I don’t know. But he brought Steve Bannon into the White House, a man whose political project involves allying with, supporting and normalizing the politics euphemistically referred to as ‘white nationalism.’ President Trump’s final day campaign video, ‘Argument for America,’ was identical to classic antisemitic conspiracy theory, although it didn’t mention Jews; it relied on that discourse and it functioned as a dog-whistle to those who could understand it. It blamed a global money-conspiracy for unemployment in the rust belt, and it portrayed politicians as being in the pay of these hidden global money-men of awesome power.
My favourite story is ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ Two clever and plausible tailors come to town and they tell the Emperor that they can make him the most beautiful suit ever made. They tell him that only very sophisticated and clever people will recognize the greatness of the new suit. They sell him a suit made out of cloth so fine that one can only ever see it if one is capable of appreciating such things. The point of the story is not that people were forced into pretending that they could see the clothes. The point is that they really came to believe they could see them. They deferred to the clever and sophisticated people and they adopted their understanding. Only the child was able to point at the Emperor and declare that he was wearing no clothes. And once it was said, everybody could see that it was true.
Your question, I think, asks whether it is enough to be the child and to point, and to tell a simple truth. And the answer is that this is necessary but it is not enough. My work is not a politics of finding the bad people and denouncing them; it is an effort to understand and to describe. It is an effort to persuade and to show people what is going wrong.
Very recently, in the last two years, things have come to seem normal in the public conversation which before that would have been easily recognized as beyond the boundaries of democratic discourse.
Antisemitism, xenophobia and racism have been re-described by the populists (both left and right) as modes of rebellion by the oppressed — whether it be described as ‘white working class’ or as supporters of the Palestinians or as the ‘left-behinds’ — while antiracism has been portrayed as a mode of domination, a dishonest discourse of power which functions to silence the organic rebellion of the oppressed.
This is a rather frightening reversal. Those embracing such antiracism have been de-legitimized by the use of terms such as ‘cosmopolitan elite’ and they have been thus cast as unpatriotic or even as ‘enemies of the people.’
Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn have come into the mainstream with strong defences against those who are horrified by their angry and resentful politics. They have found ways to allow electorates to scapegoat, to channel their resentments, which are deniable and which are not entirely explicit.
Britain, Europe and America may be approaching a period of significant and dangerous insecurity and turmoil. The key elements of democracy itself are under assault from a number of different directions; the distinct and opposing critiques of democracy have more in common with each other than their apparently distinct proponents are aware of.
The far left, the radical intellectuals, the antisemites, the xenophobic and Islamophobic right, the radical Islamists, the Trumpists and the Brexiters share a number of perspectives. They have a tendency to embrace discourses in which contempt for democratic states and cultures, contempt for (neo-)liberals or for Liberals, contempt for the liberty and equality of human beings, are key elements. Profound suspicion of international co-operation and institutions is on the rise. Scepticism extends to the rule of law, science and knowledge, international trade, the very idea of the market. It is now common to encounter those who believe that these elements are mere facades which hide the old power structures in order to subordinate the many to the few. It is not yet clear how antisemitism might play out in the coming years. But the emotional appeal of the populist movements requires enemies: enemies which are to be found at the center of dangerous, global and powerful conspiracies.
Antisemitism has never been just an isolated eccentricity. It has always also been an indicator of a profound political sickness. To tolerate this as a symptom and to miss the fatal disease which causes it may prove to be an error.
All good wishes,