Review of David Hirsh, Contemporary Left Antisemitism (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017)

hirsh book

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.’

There were attempts to address anti-Semitism within these spheres. Hirsh brings up the case of Fraser v UCU, a case which was brought up in the University College Union (UCU) tribunal. Ronnie Fraser, a college instructor and member of the UCU, sued the UCU for allowing a culture of anti-Semitism to prosper. In this case study, Hirsh shows that what he saw as very evident anti-Semitism was not as readily recognizable to the majority.  Hirsh walks the reader through the case, showing how the tribunal was woefully biased as they omitted evidence presented that verified Fraser’s claims of anti-Semitism within the UCU body.

Countless Jews had resigned from the Union; they simply could not take it anymore. A member of the LDB Academic Advisory Board, Lesley Klaff, testified about an email exchange with a fellow professor in the UCU she believed to be anti-Semitic. The other professor referred to Israel being an apartheid state like South Africa and accused Israel of water and land theft, drawing on the trope of Jewish criminality. None of this was mentioned in the tribunal’s judgment.

Hirsh uses Fraser v. UCU as a case study into the difference between anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred: the other forms are given legitimacy on the left whereas anti-Semitism is not. Hirsh describes how the Union was so ready to hear about other racisms “with compassion” but would not listen to Fraser. Similar to the many people who claim there is anti-Semitism in a progressive space, Fraser was accused of ‘pulling an anti-Semitism card’ in ‘bad faith’ and was not taken seriously. In contrast, Hirsh offers an example of dealing with sexual harassment at a workplace and adds how these same progressives would listen to the woman and believe her. As for the allegations of anti-Semitism, such allegations are just seen as deceitful.

Without consensus on the definition of anti-Semitism on the left, it is a complex issue to unpack, and Hirsh does so in a way that the reader can follow. He charts the trajectory of anti-Semitism rising to prominence and acceptance in progressive spaces in a way that prior knowledge of neither anti-Semitism nor the politics of the UK are necessary. This book could very well serve as an introduction into the current issue of anti-Semitism on the left and will undoubtedly stimulate your interest in the subject matter.