September 17, 2019

The Contemporary Left Antisemitism exchange, part 1: ‘Opposing antisemitism is about politics, not about race or religion’

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.

The following exchange will focus on Hirsh’s new book, Contemporary Left Antisemitism (Routledge, 2017).


Dear David,

In the prologue to your new book, you write the following words:

It hardly seems controversial to say that while criticism of Israel may well be entirely legitimate, some forms of criticism of Israel may be antisemitic. Defining which kinds of criticism are which is a matter for judgment, and it is the subject of this book.

My introductory question: What types of definitions and answers can one find in your book, who are the definition discussions for and what do you expect your narrative to achieve?




Dear Shmuel,

The first hurdle here, which is a considerable one, is agreeing that some kinds of criticism of Israel are legitimate while others may feed into, or draw upon, antisemitic cultures or ways of thinking. The antizionist movement may agree to this proposition in words, but in its practice it defines everything as criticism and it finds nothing to be related to antisemitism.

I describe in the book how, in the struggle over proposals for an academic boycott of Israel within the University and College Union, the boycotters would always include a clause in their motions to inoculate themselves in advance from a discussion about antisemitism, for example ‘criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic.’ While the motion supported a boycott, the antisemitism clause referred only to ‘criticism of Israel,’ implying that boycott falls within the protection afforded to ‘criticism.’ The UCU Congress explicitly rejected an amendment to clarify the wording so that it would read as follows: ‘While much criticism of Israel is anti-semitic, criticism of Israeli state policy cannot necessarily be construed as anti-Semitic.’ And in the union, all kinds of antisemitic bullying and discourse were treated as ‘criticism of Israel’ and therefore part of the normal rough and tumble of debate.

When Bongani Masuku, the international officer for the once mighty Cosatu trade union federation in South Africa was judged guilty of hate-speech, the whole anitzionist and BDS movement rallied round him, even though what he had said was evidently not mere ‘criticism of Israel.’ He had threatened to mobilize Cosatu members on campus to make life there ‘hell’ for people he called ‘Zionists.’ He had threatened violence, ‘with immediate effect’ against families in SA whose children had moved to Israel and served in its army. He had threatened concrete harm against people who did not agree with him about Israeli politics. On a website, Masuku wrote about the overwhelming majority of living Jews, those who in one way or another identify with Israel, as though they were supporters of racism and fascism. To drive his point home about those Jews, including those who live in SA, he wrote that Hitler was their friend. The point here is that the antizionists who consider themselves to be progressive and antiracist rallied around Masuku and defended all of this, as though it were ‘criticism of Israel.’

Only a few weeks ago the celebrated film director Ken Loach normalized Holocaust denial at a pro-Palestine fringe meeting of the Labour Party Conference saying that ‘history is for all of us to discuss.’ Even Holocaust denial is defended by some as ‘criticism of Israel.’

The book is the story of how antisemitism has moved from the Stalinist fringes of the left towards the mainstream. It is the story of how antisemitic ideas and exclusions are more and more tolerated and licensed within the Labour movement, on campus and amongst the chattering classes. The explicit antisemitism of Hamas and Hezbollah, for example, or the Iranian regime, are overlooked and licensed by some who see them as allies against capitalism, imperialism or modernity.

People who stumble into antisemitic ways of thinking or alliances are generally treated leniently if they are considered to be ‘on our side’ in the global struggle. Those who oppose antisemitism, however, who are mainly Jews, are treated harshly. They are accused of trying to silence criticism of Israel and to smear the left. They are treated as though they were enemies, hiding within the progressive movement in order to do it harm.

The Donald Trump presidential campaign brought many of the shapes and forms of left antisemitism into the right-wing mainstream in America. The final day campaign video was a potent articulation of conspiracy theory even if it did not explicitly relate to Jews.  Steve Bannon’s alliances with ‘white nationalist’ politics, a world in which antisemitism figures strongly, were deniable because they were not explicit. We heard supportive Jews mobilizing their Jewish identity to declare the president free of antisemitism; we heard that some of his best friends (and his grandchild) were Jewish; we heard that people only raised the issue in order to smear the president; we heard mainstream acceptance and legitimization of the Nazis at Charlottesville who surrounded a synagogue chanting ‘The Jews will not replace us.’ All of these things are familiar to anyone who has studied the mainstreaming of left antisemitism; now we see them on the right. They are deniable, they are not obvious, they are difficult to pin down, but they are important. The left seems sensitive to right-wing antisemitism, and the right seems sensitive to left-wing antisemitism; but there is a great reluctance to see it within one’s own political milieu.

The discussion in the book of controversies over defining antisemitism is important, I think. People want an app for their iPhone which can tell them what is antisemitic and what is not. But the world is more complicated than that. It requires judgment of context, of intention, of effect and of meaning. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism (also adopted by the State Department) offers some useful guidelines to help make these judgments. But it is angrily rejected by those who wish to carry on doing the things that it says, according to context and judgment, may be antisemitic.

I think we need to hold on tightly to the tradition in which there is an alliance against racism and antisemitism; I think we need to be suspicious of the tradition which wants to label Jews as white and then as Zionist racists; and we need to be suspicious of the tradition which wants to label antisemitism as being essential to non-white culture. Opposing racism and antisemitism is about politics, not about race or religion.