Review of David Hirsh, Contemporary Left Antisemitism (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017)
The United Kingdom’s Labour party and its trade unions, like the University College Union (UCU), consider themselves progressive and “antiracist” spaces. As such, these arenas pride themselves on being free of prejudice in the form of sexism, racism, or otherwise. And, yet, these same institutions have come to tolerate, and perhaps promote, hatred in the form of anti-Semitism. David Hirsh set out to write his book, Contemporary Left Antisemitism, as a former member of the UCU and a leading activist, speaking out against the anti-Semitism present within this realm and current editor of the online journal, Engage. In the book, Hirsh explores how these “antiracist” spaces in the UK allowed for institutional racism to foster, and why it continues. While this book focuses primarily on anti-Semitism in the contemporary left of the UK, it draws a relation to the rise in the anti-Semitism from the left on a global scale.
On the left, individuals engage in anti-Semitism most when they talk about Israel – they do so in ways that demonize, delegitimize, or hold Israel to a double standard. Singling Israel out is, to many progressives, well-founded and not anti-Semitic; it is excused as ‘criticism’ against Israel and its policies. Should anybody speak out and call it what it is, anti-Semitic, the accuser is then discredited and accused of ‘bad faith’ and trying to ‘silence criticism against Israel.’ Herein lies the “Livingstone Formulation,” a term which Hirsh coined to explain the ways in which progressives deflect allegations of anti-Semitism. And, so, antisemitism is tolerated.
Progressive institutions went beyond tolerating it, though. They served as incubators for anti-Semitism to flourish. Because the so-called antiracist and progressivist left supposedly stands up against all forms of hatred, they see themselves as the warriors for the oppressed in the fight against oppressors. Such a mentality arose from what Hirsh calls a ‘campist mentality’ wherein we now engage in politics of position, regarding your position in the world, rather than a politics of reason. In terms of position, Israel and Zionists are thrown into the oppressor camp, as allegedly part of a larger white imperialist spirit that can be accused of all that is wrong in the world. Antizionism, then, becomes legitimized as a fight against the white oppressor.
Hirsh concedes that while some criticism of Israel is indeed wholly legitimate and not anti-Semitic, much of the hostility to Israel is anti-Semitic. Hirsh explains how people have come to conflate ‘Jew’ with ‘Israeli’ and ‘Zionist’ such that criticizing Israel and Zionism is a route to target Jews. Individuals on the left (among others) will distinguish between antizionism and anti-Semitism, but Hirsh does not believe it is valid to distinguish them absolutely – there is some crossover. He draws upon historical tropes and stereotypes used against Jews throughout history, primarily medieval blood libel and conspiracy theories, and highlights how they are now being re-appropriated towards ‘Zionists.’ Continue reading