Jews and the Left in the UK (Keith Kahn-Harris)


For those following the story about Jews and the left, anti-Semitim and anti-Zionism in the United Kingdom, you can find here the wise words of Keith Kahn-Harris, whose problem is this. On the one hand, he’s resisting the hype. No, this is not 1938; anti-Semites are not on the march  and have not taken over the Labour Party or the left as a whole, which should still be a home for Jewish center-leftists and leftists. On the other hand, he shows genuine concern that no, this story cannot be dismissed as a simply fabricated story (as per some of Corbyn’s allies) or as a marginal phenomenon (as per Corbyn himself).  Yes, the left, in particular the anti-Zionist left, especially in the UK, has a problem with Jews, an anti-Semitism problem. Do the Jews have a place on the left? Do leftists have a place in the British Jewish community?

My own sense is that this is where the logic of sharp polemics about Israel and Palestine has dragged us all, especially on the left. Online and on college campuses, the problem pops up here and there, now with some consistency in the United States. Without an ability to address the Israel-Palestine conflict in a constructive way, based on the principles of national self-determination and mutual recognition, the anti-Zionist left finds itself getting dragged by to a very bad place by the very structure of its opposition. My own sense also is that Jews and Muslims,  Israelis and Palestinians will have to come to terms with each other, and that the left, the anti-Zionist left does nothing to build the kind of dialogue, political bridging  and broad consensus building with which to oppose effectively the occupation. As if stuck in position, the kind of left now representing the Labour Party in the UK has nothing to contribute to resolving the conflict.

Such as it is, the anti-Semitism problem with Jews and the left seems to be more pronounced  in Britain, more widespread and ingrained, less easier to isolate and to contain. People caught in the middle like Kahn-Harris find themselves pushed into two corners simultaneously. Kahn-Harris is one of the most astute observers on the UK Jewish scene. One can only hope that fear is the beginning of wisdom. Indeed, it is precisely because of his own position in the middle that he’s worth a paying attention to.  With his kind permission, I’m citing entire post here:

Labour’s antisemitism row is scaring me (but, perhaps, not for the reasons you might expect)

Keith Kahn-Harris

I’ve found the last 2–3 weeks, in which the Labour Party’s stance on antisemitism has become a major political issue, to be excruciating. The issues at stake are not new ones — the issue of antisemitism and the left has been heavily contested for years now — but the degree of scrutiny, and the sheer intensity of the controversy, are new.

I am someone who researches and writes about British Jewry and its relationship to Israel and antisemitism. I am someone who is deeply involved in Jewish communal life in the UK. I am someone who identifies with ‘the left’. For all these reasons, it was inevitable that I would become deeply immersed in the controversy over the Labour Party and antisemitism. To some extent, the controversy was predictable and maybe it was even necessary for this vexed issue to come to a head.

But what has taken me aback is the degree to which this controversy has scared me. While I am don’t consider myself to be an especially brave person, I have written about antisemitism, Israel/Palestine and the left for years without it unnerving me to this degree.

This brief essay is an attempt to work out just what it is that is scaring me. First of all though, I should probably note what I don’t mean by being scared: I don’t think this is ‘1938 all over again’, I don’t feel ‘unwelcome’ in the UK, I don’t think that Jews are facing some kind of pogrom, I don’t feel any less embedded in British society. I don’t even feel that the Labour Party has become ‘institutionally antisemitic.’

In some ways, if I did feel that way, it would be easier. One of the emotions that has been overwhelming me over the last few weeks has been envy towards those who are so certain about what is going on — those who think that the Labour Party is completely ridden with antisemitism and those who think that such accusations are completely false. Oh to be an accuser or a denier! Both sides have a home, a place of support. But if, like me, you think there is a problem but define that problem in non-standard ways, I’m not sure where you stand.

So what scares me is the controversy itself and where it will take us, as much the ‘real issues’ behind it. Whether or not the Labour Party ‘actually’ has an antisemitism problem, it certainly has an antisemitism controversy problem — and it’s the fallout from this that scares me….

I’m scared that, should Corbyn fall (or even if he doesn’t), the Zionists/Jews will be blamed

Even if you think that the examples of Labour antisemitism that have been highlighted in the last few weeks are exaggerated, one-off incidents or simply not antisemitism at all, the controversy over these incidents may well lead to antisemitism. One narrative that has attained considerable traction is that antisemitism is being ‘used’ by the Labour right and the Tories as a way to destroy Corbyn’s leadership. Leaving aside whether this is actually true or not, this narrative could have dangerous consequences, particularly if Corbyn falls or is weakened by the controversy.

One of the defining tropes of those on the Corbynite left who reflect the antisemitism accusations, is that Jews and Zionists, Judaism and Zionism, are not the same thing. That is of course true, but the ‘inconvenient’ truth remains that most Jews are Zionists to some degree or other. Indeed, many Jewish interventions in the controversy have asserted the indivisibility of the two. It may well be that one result of the controversy is to make Zionist Jews emphasise their Zionism even more. That inevitably means that, should the narrative take hold that ‘Zionists tried to destroy Corbyn’, it will have deeply unpleasant consequences for many Jews.

I’m scared that the barriers against Holocaust denial are being eroded

The controversy over Ken Livingstone’s ‘Hitler supported Zionism before he went mad’ comment has had terrible consequences. While even many Corbynites objected to Livingstone’s comments, a narrative has grown up online that is extremely dangerous: that Livingstone was only pointing out the historical fact of Zionist-Nazi collaboration and that the attacks on him were attempts to hide the truth. This is, of course, nonsense. No one denies the incidents happened, only that they do not mean that Hitler shared the Zionist’s goals.

My fear is that, if the narrative takes hold that there is a history of the Nazi period and the Holocaust that is being ‘hidden’ from scrutiny, it may create a terrible momentum that could ultimately lead to Holocaust denial. I don’t think that Holocaust denial will ever become mainstream on the left, but I do think it could become much more common than it is now. That is an appalling prospect.

I’m scared at the way Jews are being set against each other

I’ve spent years trying to develop a more civil intra-Jewish debate. I’ve always been appalled at the ways that non or anti-Zionist Jews have often been treated as pariahs. Any progress in this area is rapidly being undone. Jews of different stripes are being used to prove or deny accusations of antisemitism. All too often, the message is ‘don’t listen to those Jews, listen to these ones!’ And all too often, Jews play along: ‘I’m the real Jew here!’

This is a dirty game, and we shouldn’t play it. It’s paving the way for a new and bizarre form of antisemitism, in which praise for some Jews is combined with denunciation of other Jews. The real challenges of accepting the fact of Jewish diversity are being avoided.

I’m scared that this controversy will suppress Jewish progressive politics

Far from being politically homogeneous, British Jews hold to a wide variety of political positions. The Labour antisemitism controversy is forcing many left-of-centre Jews to make a dreadful choice: you can become part of the left, but only if you reject Zionism. Liberal Zionists are being ‘squeezed’ from the right and the left. In the last few years there has been slow and steady progress in enabling Zionist Jewish critics of Israel to find their public voice. I’m scared that this antisemitism controversy will push many of them back ‘in the closet.’ It’s depressing to note that, just a couple of short weeks ago, there was a broad coalition across the Jewish community to push for more child refugees to enter the country — and now many of those who supported this move are condemned as Zionist enemies of the left.

I’m scared for myself: that I may become politically and Jewishly homeless

People reading this piece might conclude that the writer is a left-of-centre liberal Zionist. But my relationship to Zionism is much more ambivalent. I am critical of many aspects of political Zionism and I do not believe that anti-Zionism is always antisemitism. That puts me in a minority amongst the Jewish community. But I am also a passionate advocate of Jewish pluralism and peoplehood. I try and make my home across the community. I refuse to abandon ‘the Zionists’ to endless abuse. Again, this puts me in a minority on the Israel-critical left.

I’m scared that the pressures on me to choose between a concern for all Jews and a commitment to left-wing politics that includes robust criticism of Israeli government (together with careful and nuanced critique of certain elements of the Zionist project), will only increase.

Where this leaves me, I don’t know.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Jews and the Left in the UK (Keith Kahn-Harris)

  1. fof9l says:

    In that Zionism is, by definition, the movement for a national home for the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland, I know very few, if any, Jews who are anti-Zionist. The definition of an anti-Zionist, by my understanding, would be a person who was opposed to the concept or the reality of a home in our land – in the words of the Hatikvah, lihyot am chofshi b’artzeinu. So from that point of view, Jews and Zionists are, if not one and the same, then certainly very closely bound. The exception, of course, is the Naturei Karta movement, but we won’t get involved with that here.

    But what all Jews, and Zionists, are free to do is to critique, and to dissent from, the way in which political Zionism is expressed and made real, ie, policies adopted by an Israeli government. But that criticism doesn’t make them any less Zionist, and doesn’t mean that they are opposed to the concepts behind Zionism.

    So the way in which the Left has not only blurred but attempted to obliterate the lines between Zionists who support the government and Zionists who do not support the government is the root of the problem. I will stand up proudly and say that I am a Zionist, and if anyone has a problem with that, that is their problem, not mine. I will discuss politics with anyone who has an intelligent head on their shoulders, but I will shut down anyone who tells me that I don’t have the right to my identity as a Jew, because that is in essence what these leftists are telling me. If anyone wants to discuss actual government issues and policies, as well as attitudes towards terrorists of any stripe, then they have to be a lot more careful to distinguish who I am and what I support, otherwise they will only cause me to bring up the drawbridge against what is really only thinly disguised anti-semitism. Nobody has the right to tell me that they will only listen to me, or allow me to speak, or to participate in a conference, if I deny my identity. This is identity theft, and that’s what the left is doing, right now.

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