The historical burden of antisemitism

by Helen Thompson


Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a demonstration for Palestine, London 2009. Davide Simonetti via Flickr.

The Labour Party’s crisis over antisemitism under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has an air of inevitability. Yet the party’s tribulations brought about by Corbyn’s past and present political commitments are also in part the story of a struggle against the very idea that the past acts as a constraint on political beliefs.

In the kind of left-wing politics that Corbyn has long practised lies a faith that collective life can be morally transformed by political activism and that the renewal can avoid destruction as an unintended consequence. Antisemitism poses a significant problem for such a faith. The whole history of antisemitism in western civilisation suggests that it is a danger that is never surpassed or transcended, only abated for periods of time by conscious restraint and vigilance. The endurance of antisemitism can perhaps best be understood by seeing it as the original sin of western civilisation. It manifested itself first in Christianity and then sustained itself through Europe's economic development, the political demise of the idea of Christendom, nationhood’s emergence as the legitimating discourse of states, and the post-Enlightenment revolutionary projects that sought in one way or another to rid Europe of its Christian heritage. It has appeared in vicious forms in politics as different as those of Plantagenet England, the Venetian Republic, Napoleonic France – even as Napoleon spread Jewish emancipation eastwards across Europe – Wilhelmine Germany, Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union under Lenin as well as Stalin, and prosperous 1920s’ America. There is, it would appear, no form of politics in western societies that has some inbuilt protection against it. It is not that there can be no politics in western societies that escapes antisemitism. Rather, there appear to be no set of political commitments that makes it impossible for antisemitism to rise within them. The politics of anti-colonial anti-racism that defines Corbyn’s political life can be no history-defying exception.

Solidarity with the Palestinians as a slogan must beg the question of solidarity to what end, a question which only Palestinians can answer.

The creation of Israel in 1948, and in particular the development of the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967, have made this reality harder to confront. Solidarity with dispossessed people appears such an obvious cause for those whose political commitments are defined through the idea of justice that the awkward question of why the dispossession and exile of the Palestinians should excite more solidarity and passion than the exile from their homelands in the years after the Second World War of millions of other people, including Jews, appears often to lie unexamined. The refuge for not asking this question became the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, a differentiation made easier to pursue by the claim some Zionists make to the whole land of the Palestine Mandate and some Jews’ ongoing commitment to anti-Zionism. But this distinction falls apart when applied to the rhetoric of those who have been the dominant representatives of the Palestinian people for most of the past 70 years and to some of the Middle Eastern governments that have been fiercest in their anti-colonial rhetoric, from former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to the post-revolutionary Iranian governments, and that have deployed openly genocidal language against Jews.

 Consequently, those like Corbyn whose primary political commitment has been to anti-colonial anti-racism cannot escape on the Palestinian issue from choosing whether or not to accommodate antisemitism regardless of their own moral intentions. Once they do acquiesce to its presence in their causes, the historical burden of western civilisation's antisemitic sins arrives upon them. Each justification of indulging antisemitism opens them to the accusation of sharing it. Whether in any particular instance this is reasonable or not will prove inconsequential; they are prepared to tolerate it to advance another end. The charge that this perspective prohibits solidarity with the Palestinians, even when the actions of the Israeli government invite moral criticism and such criticism is expressed by many Jews, has considerable truth. But it does so because western activists cannot shape the answer to the question of what Palestinian ends are. Solidarity with the Palestinians as a slogan must beg the question of solidarity to what end, a question which only Palestinians can answer. Even if Corbyn hoped to be the peacemaker he proclaims himself, he never had, nor ever could have had, the political agency to determine whether or not the Palestinian leadership pursued the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. By contrast, Palestinians who do accept Israel’s continued existence may hope to exercise just such influence. For Corbyn personally, this difficulty is made worse by the fact he has shown himself unwilling in his associations to differentiate between antisemitic Palestinian groups and those who have worked hard to try to banish antisemitism from the Palestinian pursuit of a state.

There appear to be no set of political commitments that makes it impossible for antisemitism to rise within them.

This problem is confounded further because of the actual history of nation states, including the manner in which the discourse of nationhood has often become discredited, even whilst democratic states still rely on it to provide the answer to the question of who constitutes the people who choose representatives to govern. In every instance, the politics of establishing nation states was coercive in terms of fighting wars or attempting to impose uniform religious and linguistic practices, and often both. It was precisely from these historical developments that Zionism emerged as a response to Jews’ predicament as a minority in European states. It was also precisely because in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the currency of state formation became nationhood that the idea of Palestinian nationhood was forged by the Palestine Liberation Organisation to pursue a state. To make a political contest out of the existence of Israel as a nation state and not any other, including those whose ideas of nationhood led to Zionism in the first place, will lead to charges of antisemitism. Any defence against such charges expressed simply in terms of justice for, and solidarity with, the Palestinians either requires a utopian hope that all nationhoods will ultimately disappear and with them the states they legitimate, including by this logic any Palestinian state, or again an explicit disavowal of those who pursue a Palestinian state that would terminate the state of Israel. For a western political party, this makes supporting the cause of the Palestinians as it has historically been pursued by the Palestinian people’s actual representatives difficult, except for the period of the Oslo peace process. This reality does not at all mean that any criticism of the Israeli government necessarily risks antisemitism. Rather, it means that Palestinian choices are a constraint on what can be said about the conflict and what alliances can be made with political actors from it without slipping into the pit of antisemitism.

The paths history took cannot be eliminated by wishful thinking or transcended in the future simply because they are unpalatable to anyone's moral convictions about nationhood or anything else. There is no sustainable narrative of progress around antisemitism. Before the antisemitism of the French Third Republic and the Dreyfus trial that led Theodore Herzl to form the Zionist Organisation came the granting of full rights to Jews in France in the 1840s. Bolshevism began by repudiating the systematically institutionalised antisemitism of the Tzarist Pale of Settlement and reached a point where Stalin ordered concentration camps for Jews to be constructed in Siberia. In the face of the predicament that now confronts the Labour leadership, there is an inescapable choice: deny the palpable danger of  having allowed antisemitism back into British politics via abstractly expressed support for the Palestinians that detaches from the specific ends and means of the Palestinian struggle and the contest among Palestinians over them, or make the sacrifices required to repudiate antisemitism, including that of an a priori faith in politics’ historical malleability to anyone’s conscious moral intentions.

About the author

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Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge and a regular panelist on the Talking Politics podcast. She also tweets @HelenHet20.
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