Identity politics and anti-Semitism on the left

Identity politics and anti-Semitism on the left

Bakunin wrote, in The Capitalist System, “What is it that brings the capitalist to the market? It is the urge to get rich, to increase his capital, to gratify his ambitions and social vanities, to be able to indulge in all conceivable pleasures. And what brings the worker to the market? Hunger, the necessity of eating today and tomorrow. Thus, while being equal from the point of juridical fiction, the capitalist and the worker are anything but equal from the point of view of the economic situation, which is the real situation”.

This simple pair of observations is at the core of a class analysis of power in society. Distilled further into just one word, it is this: ownership. Class is not an identity; it is a relationship. It is a relationship with that noun: ownership.

Somehow, for some people, that glaring fact is missed. For them ownership is not the cause of the disease, it is a symptom. They look past it for the cause. They ask: “what is it these powerful people have in common?” and instead of seeing that ownership is the cause of their power, they look for other commonalities. Their lack of clear thinking leads them to a misdiagnosis.

Forgetting the backgrounds of all the Bill Gateses and Jeff Bezoses, the Warren Buffets and the Armancio Ortegas, the Bernard Arnaults and the Jim and Alice Waltons, they see not capital but ethnicity, and everywhere they think they see Jews. This is because that’s what they’re looking for. Like the pessimistic driver who remembers only the red lights they get stuck behind and not the green lights they sail through, they see only what they’re looking for. Their selection bias not only fails to see non-Jewish billionaires, it also fails to see non-capital owning Jews.

This much should be obvious. This much should be common sense, and there should be no issue about it, were it not for the foaming-mouthed conspiracy theorists who abound on the internet, who disregard the obvious explanation we started with, and look instead for cabals of Jews, writing off any evidence to the contrary.

And yet we have that seemingly anomalous phenomenon that was brought blinking into the light during the accident-prone period of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party: the issue of anti-Semitism on the broader “left”.

This came as a surprise to some as anti-Semitism has been more associated with the right in recent decades. However, we need look no further than identity politics for the insidious reach of anti-Semitism on the so-called left.

It is a logical extension of identity politics being accepted as the only way to do solidarity that blame ends up being apportioned according to identity. We can call this ethnic nationalism, or we can call it racism, but whatever we call it, it is not anti-racism.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is a subject for another article. Suffice it to say, the Israeli state has indeed run an apartheid-like campaign of oppression against the Palestinian people. We stand in solidarity with Palestinian workers, as with all workers.

But a problem arises when we see identities before we see relationships with ownership. Disparity in power is put down not to ownership, but to ethnicity.

In the so-called left’s anti-Semitism morass, there are three strands that some people seem to find it difficult to disentangle.

1. The disingenuous labelling of all criticism of the Israeli state, its actions and policies, as necessarily anti-Semitic.

2. The actual anti-Semitism that exists on the left, often associated with Palestinian solidarity (which does not have to be in itself anti-Semitic); the blind eye turned to it; the dodgy alliances thereby arrived at.

3. The use made of both of the above by anti-Corbyn forces inside and outside of the Labour Party.

Corbyn and his team were at the very least accident-prone on dealing with this. They were especially inept at dealing with 1 and 3 because of 2.

We’ve all seen 2. It does us no favours to keep saying “but 1” or “but 3″. As revolutionaries, we, unlike the former Labour leadership, need to deal with 2, and decisively, no matter whence it has arisen”.

Because it did not go away when Corbyn left the Labour leadership.

The following passages from Malik’s piece on anti-zionism and antisemitism are particularly worth picking up in this context, but it’s only a short piece and worth reading in full.

“Particularly in sections of the left, anti-Zionism has more and more appropriated, often unrecognised, anti-Semitic tropes.”

“There are, in other words, many forms of anti-Zionism, some progressive, some anti-Semitic. What has shifted is that left wing ideas of anti-Zionism have become increasingly colonised by anti-Semitic forms. The reasons are complex, ranging from evolving notions of ‘anti-imperialism’ to the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories.”

“Identity politics has led many to target Jews for being Jews, especially as they are seen as belonging to a group with many privileges to check, and to hold all Jews responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. Many who support the Palestinian cause, including many within the Labour party, seem genuinely unable to distinguish between criticising Israel and sowing hatred against a people.”

We in the ACG are critical of the ideologies and alliances that Trotskyist sects brought into campaigning organisations. Many of us found in our dealings with the Stop the War Coalition, for example, that the Trotskyists who overran that organisation had become bogged down in multiculturalism and identity politics. In their desire to seek alliances with reactionary Muslim groups, suddenly homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and so on was overlooked when it came from certain quarters. This reactionary gunge came spilling from the belly of the Trotskyist Trojan horse like rancid offal.

Nira Yuval-Davis and Sukhwant Dhaliwal also noticed it:

“The issues that we had raised in our critique of multiculturalism became accentuated as the number of ‘religious leaders’ and representatives increased exponentially. They became a critical part of New Labour’s neo liberal instrumentalisation of ‘community’ and they were given additional spaces within which to manoeuvre.”

“…we also opposed the way in which the Stop the War Coalition responded to this new security state by building an alliance with factions of right wing Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami networks in Britain. At the time, there was little scrutiny of global fundamentalist networks by either anti-racist or feminist academics and activists.”

“However, there has been an entrenchment of religious identity politics – something we spent decades contesting.”

“Asserting that rights need not be justified by religious texts or frameworks, but must simply be available to everyone, requires new struggles.”

So how do we voice our opposition to what we used to safely call Zionism?

Let us leave to one side for now our opposition towards the concept of states. States exist, and we need to work within the reality we have before us. We argue that the current state of Israel is a racist endeavour: it seeks to be a Jewish state. If it sought to be a state in which Jews (and other residents) could live and exercise self-determination, that would be a different matter. A secular, non-discriminatory, democratic state of Israel is acceptable (in the context of a world at least espousing those values). A racist, apartheid state is not.

The question we are left with is what does the term “anti-Zionist” look like to the casual reader? Technically we might be “anti-Zionist”, but like it or not, arguing for the technical meaning of this phrase is closing the trap door when the Trojan horse has long ago spilled its decaying guts. To the casual observer, in the context that has been bequeathed to us by the Labour Party’s mishandling of the furore, using the term makes us look like barking xenophobes. We argue that it is far safer to use more precise and unambiguous phrases like opposing the Israeli state, its policies, or its actions.

That way we raise ourselves above the identity politics mire.

Original text on ACG website.

Posted By

Serge Forward
May 28 2020 08:07


Attached files


May 28 2020 16:46

Thank you. Spot on.

May 29 2020 08:18

I liked this article but disagreed with the conclusion, it didn't seem to follow from the rest of the article. Is the argument for avoiding the term anti-Zionism simply because the UK general public associates it with cranks and bigots? Phrases like "opposing the Israeli state, its policies, or its actions" are often more vague than "fuck Zionism" or something similar.

R Totale
May 29 2020 08:53

I think that saying "anti-Zionist" is an ambiguous term that can be used by completely righteous people, by liberals who are horrified by Israel's actions but don't connect this to the normal functioning of capitalism, or by cranks and bigots, whereas something like "internationalism", "against nationalism", etc seems more clear and unambiguous to me.

May 29 2020 12:20

R. Totale's suggestion sounds better but then any more detailed analytical text will still make it clear that we ARE against Zionism as we are against ALL nationalism. This short pamphlet is pretty good on all this:

Jun 1 2020 08:38

I think its more the left and neo-liberal rights need to see the world in simplistic terms than any real ideological strength of anti-semitism or anti-palestinian racism, an urge to see the world in terms of ''goodies and baddies''. Hence both sides have an unhealthy obsession with Israel, whether thats new labour (1/3 of current cabinet are members of labour friends of israel so pretty sure thats an obsession) or the level of vitriol directed against it from the left because if all the cold war and post-cold war real politic and complications and contradictions of the middle east are ignored it can be fitted into a anti-imperialist and lets face it also in some cases anti-american world view.
Its easier to paint a goodies-baddies world view over israel palestine than it is say try to address the conflicts in Somalia, the DRC or the Caucasus, all of which claim far more lives and have just as much great power meddling, but the lefts narrative means they'd rather focus unhealthily on the situation in israel palestine,
Its more like a sort of denialism, a retreat from real world complications which are too overwhelming and messy to address into said narrative.

But yeah also as the article says i'm immediately suspicious when i see the word 'zionist'.

Jul 22 2020 06:34

A critical review of this article recently published....

darren p
Jul 22 2020 11:19
Alf wrote:
A critical review of this article recently published....

Pretty poor review article, and not really a critical review at all, just a repetition of party positions and mostly not connected to the original article.

Jul 22 2020 17:45
But a problem arises when we see identities before we see relationships with ownership. Disparity in power is put down not to ownership, but to ethnicity.

Is this arguing class before race, etc.? Can you explain the Israel-Palestine situation or that of Palestinian workers without talking about ethnicity?

As with the blm, didn't anti-semitism predate the rise 'identity politics'?

Edit: Socialist antisemitism and its discontents in England, 1884–98

R Totale
Jul 22 2020 15:27

As to that last point, I think the article is is arguing precisely that anti-semitism is a form of identity politics. I agree that it would be stronger with more consideration of what it means when "identities" are also real material/legally-enforced relationships/categories, though.

R Totale
Jul 22 2020 18:04

Oh, speaking of Israel, does anyone know much about the movement that's breaking out over there? Shades of 2011/2 from the sounds of it:

Jul 25 2020 21:01
As to that last point, I think the article is is arguing precisely that anti-semitism is a form of identity politics.

Surely an opposition to it that asserts one's Jewishness and its legitimacy is also 'identity politics'. I don't understand the author's issue.

Edit: Gary Younge speaks at length about the limitations of race and class as isolated political catergories among other things.

Long read: In conversation with Gary Younge

Class is important, but in a multiracial country, it would be impossible to understand it without understanding race. Similarly race is important, but trying to understand it in a capitalist country without understanding class is impossible."

Jul 29 2020 14:52

The ICC’s article on the ACG was to a large extent prompted by the following passage in the original article.

“Let us leave to one side for now our opposition towards the concept of states. States exist, and we need to work within the reality we have before us. We argue that the current state of Israel is a racist endeavour: it seeks to be a Jewish state. If it sought to be a state in which Jews (and other residents) could live and exercise self-determination, that would be a different matter. A secular, non-discriminatory, democratic state of Israel is acceptable (in the context of a world at least espousing those values). A racist, apartheid state is not”.

The ICC article clearly asserts that we consider the ACG to be an internationalist group, but this passage seems to be a real concession to the leftist campaigns aimed at identifying Israel as a uniquely evil regime which has no “right to exist”. This ideology (in which “anti-Zionism” plays a comparable role to anti-fascism before and during World War Two) is a corner-stone of the capitalist left’s support for various factions participating in the imperialist massacres in the Middle East. The ACG article thus undermines the communist position of denunciation of all bourgeois states today, whether democratic, openly dictatorial, theocratic or Stalinist. And no one on the thread seemed to be shocked or surprised by the passage. Indeed, no one made any reference to it at all.

Our article also examines the limitations of the ACG’s break from identity politics, but the ACG's failure to consistently defend internationalist principles is even more serious.

Nov 27 2020 14:48

For want of a better place to link this - an article by L.Munro that is not either communist or class based as such, but is still an interesting and easy to read piece relating some personal experiences in term of 'identity politics' and Jewishness and differences of approach in terms of culture and language between the UK and France and their different histories. Don't agree with all the authors views on the value of independent black, LGBT etc fighting organisations at least as far as specifically communist groups are concerned but the text forces us to consider these issues based on our experience. Maybe others in France will know about the media controversies and book references mentioned to comment further here?

R Totale
Nov 29 2020 18:49

Not fully an expert on the French context, but I must say I was a bit suspicious of some of the stuff around that Houria Bouteldja. And overall I suspect there's probably some pros and cons to both the dominant Anglo-American and French ways of thinking about race, but I wasn't a big fan of how that article seemed to come off as saying "the US-UK way is always right and French thinking is wrong wherever it differs from it".

To expand on that slightly: one difference in contexts that I am aware of it that, in the UK, the far-right are either pro-Israel and anti-Muslim (Tommy Robinson etc) or else they're equally opposed to both Jews and Muslims, there's no real far-right trend that prioritises anti-Semitism above all else and tries to appeal to migrant communities on that basis. In contrast, in France you have people like former Front National activist Alain Soral who can work together with people like Dieudonne in formations like the "Parti Antisioniste". See another auto-translated article here for a bit more context:
That stuff doesn't get a mention in the Freedom article, but imo a slogan like "Zionists to the gulag", which would be utterly shit and unhelpful anywhere, is totally poisonous in a situation like that where you have fascist scum like Soral recruiting, and trying to work in migrant communities, on the basis of "anti-Zionism".

Nov 30 2020 15:25

Bouteldja seems annoying (and that slogan stupid) but I don't think it's fair to judge it as "totally poisonous" on the grounds that someone like Soral is trying to court some Islamic clergy. I suppose your comment just causes me to ask the same question the original article did, are we supposed to abandon the rhetoric of anti-Zionism on the grounds that it may be misinterpreted by the public or somehow misappropriated by the right-wing?

R Totale
Nov 30 2020 19:55

I mean, as before, I'm still not sure what we actually lose if we give up "anti-Zionism", since I don't feel any need to define myself as "anti-Juche", "anti-Baathist", "anti-Wahabist" or whatever else, I think that an anarchist/communist opposition to the state of Israel can be articulated perfectly well in terms of being against nationalism, colonialism, racism or what have you. A bit like my thoughts on "identity politics" really - I reckon that most valid criticisms of identity politics can be expressed better and clearer as critiques of representation and the role of political representatives.

But in terms of that particular instance - if she'd just said "Zionists are bad" or "down with Zionists" or whatever I wouldn't really have a problem with it, it's the combination of [a word that may or may not be a dogwhistle for Jews] + [exterminationist rhetoric] that really set alarm bells ringing for me - like "Zionists to the gulag" feels way too close to "Zionists to the camps" for my liking. To be fair to the Freedom writer, they do say that gulags are bad, but they seem a bit complacent about it.

Also, specifically on this bit: "the conflation of Jews with Zionism is an enemy, that these critics are trying to make anti-Zionism into anti-semitism and she will not let them. She... how would it be to say racists aux gulag, or settlers aux gulag; why not, it’s a thousand miles from speaking just of Jews". Like, I can see the argument, but at the same time, if someone says, for instance, "kick the extremist hate preachers out" - I think the conflation of Muslims with Islamist extremists is an enemy, and talking about extremist hate preachers is a thousand miles from speaking of all Muslims, but if I hear someone say something like "kick the extremist hate preachers out", I'm usually going to assume that they're probably a dodgy far-right prick.

Sure, we should be able to criticise Zionists, Islamist reactionaries or anyone else, but if you're going to talk about people who are favoured hate targets for the far-right it's worth being careful to avoid using fashy rhetoric.

Dec 1 2020 03:35

I think there's value in the term "anti-Zionist" in that Zionism is a fairly unique form of colonialism/racism. Articulating it in terms of "being against nationalism, colonialism, racism or what have you" in Israel/Palestine means being anti-Zionist, in the same sort of way "being against nationalism, colonialism, racism or what have you" in 1930s Australia means being anti-white-nationalist.

You wouldn't necessarily walk introducing yourself to strangers like "hi, I'm R Totale, I'm an anti-Baathist and anti-Wahhabi", but if we're talking about Syria, you would say you're those things, and you presumably wouldn't feel awkward about it on the grounds that there's lots of odious people that would also say they're anti-Baathist or anti-Wahhabi.

Like I said, the slogan from Bouteldja is not the hill anyone should be dying on, but I just don't see the point in abandoning the anti-Zionist rhetoric.

R Totale
Dec 3 2020 17:07

I guess it all depends on whether the language helps clarify things more than it confuses them. I'm opposed to jihadism and to German nationalism, but I would certainly never under any circumstances call myself a counter-jihadist or anti-Deutsch; similarly, I think there's a judgement call to be made about whether or not talking about anti-Zionism is helpful or not. And I probably still would use that language in a lot of situations, I'm sure I'd sometimes say things like "it's important to defend the space for anti-Zionist ideas and critique to exist" or whatever, it's just a matter of judgement, like how I might be happy to say "communism communism communism" all day on here but I'd probably try quite hard to find workable synonyms for it when talking to a migrant who'd grown up in the old soviet bloc.

Anyway, did a bit more digging on Bouteldja and the PIR today, due to being in a few Teams meetings with not much to do but idly open up tabs, so if anyone wants a bit more English-language background on the side of the argument that Freedom article glosses over:
Not a fan of Ross Wolfe, by any means, but the translated texts he hosts can be useful.
Is also interesting to see how much Bouteldja and the PIR get criticised for using the term "philosemites" - that's not a term I really have a problem with because in the UK context I only know it as a term used by left/anti-Zionist Jews to criticise the positions of grotesque gentile centrist freaks, but perhaps in France there's much more of a history of it being used by antisemites and the far-right.

Black Badger
Dec 3 2020 17:18

what's the definition of a philosemite? someone who hates Jews and Jewish culture, but who respects/fears "the Jews" and their alleged will to power

R Totale
Dec 3 2020 19:19

Yeah, I'd broadly agree with that, and could offer a few others (e.g., someone with a hatred of Arabs/Muslims who imagines Israel/"the Jews" as a perfect Arab-killing machine, etc). But I know nothing about how it's used in a French context, it could well be that it's often used to mean like "ZOG" or "cultural marxism" or something there.

Dec 15 2020 15:20

Well I got round to reading the translated critical text in 'thecharnelhouse' website which a seemed pretty good and a useful complement to the 'Freedom' text all of which seems particularly relevant to what is going on in France now under the French Presidency , but I'm not well versed on the more detailed arguments and language of the wider French radical movement relating to class and race.