Anti-Semitism and reactionary anti-capitalism

June 7, 2016 at 12:41 am (anti-semitism, AWL, israel, Marxism, Middle East, palestine, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", stalinism, trotskyism)

Moishe Postone

Moishe Postone, a Marxist writer based at the University of Chicago and author of Time, Labour, and Social Domination, and Critique du fétiche-capital: Le capitalisme, l’antisémitisme et la gauche, was in London in May, and spoke to Martin Thomas from Solidarity about anti-semitism on the left and reactionary anti-capitalism.


I don’t feel as if I know the ins and outs of the situation in the Labour Party, so part of what I say may not be completely accurate. First of all, there is an extremely unfortunate polarisation with regard to the relationship of anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. It is a polarisation which makes political discourse very difficult. On the one hand, you have the Israeli Right, as, let’s say, exemplified by Netanyahu, who treat any criticism of Israel as being anti-Semitic. As far as I’m concerned, this is completely illegitimate.

Not all forms of anti-Zionism are anti-Semitic. There are too many people on the left, and I think it’s increasing, who argue that no form of anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic: that anti-Zionism is anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism is something else. In the world of the metropolitan left, it is really quite remarkable that the left has almost nothing to say about Syria, had nothing to say about Saddam, has nothing to say about the fact that we are witnessing a complete crisis of the Arabic-speaking world. That crisis cannot simply be blamed on imperialism. There needs to be at least an attempt at serious analysis of why every single post-colonial Arab country is characterised by the secret police, and a secret police that would do the Stasi proud. Some of them were trained by the Stasi and the KGB, in fact.

The left seems to be unable to say anything about these issues. In a sense, and this is extremely hypothetical on my part, I think the more helpless the left feels conceptually on dealing with the world, the more it zeroes in on Israel-Palestine, because that seems to be clear: the last anti-colonial struggle.

There are some leftists who will not be happy for me to say this, but retrospectively one could say that the rise of the New Left globally implied a tacit recognition that the proletariat was not the revolutionary subject. I think that there was a move away from working-class politics. The new leftists had not only separated themselves from Communist Parties and social-democratic parties; even though they sympathised with the plight of workers, I think they were tacitly casting about for a new revolutionary subject. The colonised peoples fighting for freedom became the new revolutionary subject. I think that along with that there was a curious fusion, in part because of Vietnam, of the anti-colonial struggle and anti-Americanism.

One of the differences between the massive demonstrations against the American war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the massive demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq, is that for many — not all, but many — of those who fought against the Americans, in the 1960s, there was the idea of supporting a progressive revolution. The Americans, as the world’s imperial, but also conservative force, were hindering a positive historical development. So the demonstrations weren’t only against the Americans. They were also for the Vietnamese revolution — however one retrospectively evaluates that thinking as justified or not, and whether or not one thinks there should have been further criticism of the Vietnamese Communist Party. None of that existed in the massive demonstrations against the American invasion in Iraq. There were very few people who could on any level have regarded the Ba’ath regime under Saddam Hussein as representing anything progressive, and nobody talked that way. Anti-Americanism became coded as progressive. In a funny way, it is a remnant of the Cold War, spread among people who were actually not Cold Warriors.

Israel has become fused with America in the minds of many of these anti-imperialist leftists. An enormous amount of power is attributed to Israel which it actually doesn’t have. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who are colleagues of mine at the University of Chicago, claim that the American invasion of Iraq was against American interests, but pushed by the Israelis. Of course, they never state what Israeli interests were. Really, as both those writers had connections to Washington, their book was a brief that the State Department should listen to them more than to the neo-cons that they did listen to. Israel is, in a sense, the manipulator, and Washington is sometimes just a stupid dolt which is manipulated by these incredibly clever Jews. And at that point the picture of Zionism is anti-semitic. Zionism There were leftwing critiques of Zionism from the very beginning, frequently by communist Jews. Zionism was criticised by the communists as a form of bourgeois nationalism.

That’s something completely different from the criticisms today. Trotsky, early in his life — I think he changed his views later on — referred to the Bundists as “sea-sick Zionists”. That critique had nothing to do with Palestine or the Palestinian people. It simply has to do with nationalism. The change may have happened in the 1930s, but one marker of it was the trial in Czechoslovakia in 1952, where the Stalinists tried the entire Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party. It was 14 people. Eleven were Jewish. These were old Communists. Many had fought in Spain. They were accused of being Zionists. If you read what “Zionists” meant, it was exactly what the fascists called “Jews” — a shadowy conspiracy, inimical to the health of the Volk, and working to undermine the government which was for the people. The Stalinists couldn’t use the word “Jewish” — this was only seven years after the war — so they used the word “Zionist”. That was one of the origins of a deeply anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism. It exploded after 1967. The USSR was furious that Israel had defeated its two major client states, and it began to suport the Palestinian movement. The anti-Semitic cartoons and statements coming out of the Soviet Union were pretty appalling. That’s where you got the idea that Zionism is Nazism — generated by the Soviet Union. And unfortunately, that Arab nationalists picked up on it is not surprising.

 Carlos Latuff’s cartoon “Holocaust Remembrance Day”

The Western left started to pick up on that too. I think that was deeply unfortunate. I think anti-semitism is almost a litmus test for whether a movement is progressive or not. There are a lot of anti-capitalist movements that are not progressive. And I think that anti-Semitism is a marker. I think there is a great deal to criticise in Israeli policies, the Israeli occupation, certainly the present Israeli government. But political discussion cannot take place if the choice is between Netanyahu on the one hand, and a certain kind of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism on the other. Anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism is a world view. It is not prejudice against individual Jews. It can go with being perfectly civil, although I’ve been reading about the way some Jewish students are pilloried in terms of “you look Zionist”. Who could “look Zionist”? It means, “you look Jewish”.

I was struck by the UN Arab Human Development report of 2002, which was written by Arab scholars. It talked about the misère of the Arab-speaking world and its massive decline since the late 1970s. The decline was nearly as precipitous as that of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time other areas of what used to be called “the Third World”, have risen. It seems to me that it is not only the decline of the Arab-speaking world, but the rise of other parts, which makes an anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism more plausible. The power of the Jews! It is the Jews who are pulling everything down. This is only a little variant on the idea that the problem is all imperialism. Well, imperialism is very important, was important, was distorting. But after all the British were in India much longer than anyone was in Syria. Or in Iraq. But I know more serious analyses of India from the left than I do of the Ba’ath. I find that politically unfortunate, and when it becomes anti-Semitic, I find it a marker of a move towards a reactionary populism. Campuses On many campuses, the hostility has spread to all Jews. It has made many young Jews very confused and they identify more with Israel than they did.

It is creating a reaction. Many of them are naïve politically, and because Israel’s very existence is being called into question, they also frequently are uncritical in terms of what is going on in Israel-Palestine. When Israel under comes such attack – because it doesn’t feel like a political attack but an existential attack – there is very little discussion. There are campaigns such as BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel], which is basically dishonest. [Norman] Finkelstein picked up on this quite a while ago. Some people are confused, and BDS tries to promote the confusion. People think it is against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza period, but it is not. Because if it were, then it would not be a boycott of all Israeli academics, most of whom are very opposed to the settlements and Netanyahu. It is significant I think, that at the height of the Vietnam War, or the Iraq invasion, or other American adventures, there never was a call for a boycott of all American academics, ever.

The West takes the model of South Africa; many Palestinian militants think the model is Algeria; and there is no analogy. I don’t mean a moral analogy, I the mean analogy falls down because of demographic and political facts. There was in South Africa, only a small minority of white South Africans. There are as many Israeli Jews as there are Palestinians. So the Algerian or South African tactics are not going to work. But you have an extremely unfortunate marriage, as it were, between the Israeli right, which is becoming further and further right, and what I regard as the Palestinian right.

For me, the signal event was when [Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated [in 1995, by an Israeli right-winger]. The right-wing campaign against Rabin was appalling and vicious, and Netanyahu was at the head of that. After Rabin was assassinated, it was assumed that Labour would be swept into power on a sympathy vote. Instead a Palestinian group began a campaign of suicide bombs. That elected the first Netanyahu government [in 1996]. The two work hand in glove. Each side thinks that ultimately, in the long run, it is going to prevail. But in the meantime, politically, they are united. It is a united rightwing front.

34 Comments

  1. Glasgow Working Class said,

    Life was simple in the tenements. We played Moishe. Three holes at a short distance between and then throw a coin. No violence at all.

  2. Ben said,

    “… the Israeli Right, as, let’s say, exemplified by Netanyahu, who treat any criticism of Israel as being anti-Semitic…”

    This is incorrect. Nobody on the Israeli right is afraid of engaging in civil debate with someone who thinks differently. Just as I am sure Postone would not regard it as personally offensive if Zionists on the right were to take issue with or even go as far as to criticize some of his positions.

    What is true is that there is a difference between criticism and defamation, between reasoned disagreement and demonization, between promoting a different vision and engaging in outright libel and slander. And “criticism” of Israel is all too often defamatory, demonical, and libellous. Postone realizes all this, I am sure, which leads him to reject the arguments of Walt and Mearsheimer, whom he correctly recognizes as maliciously misrepresenting AIPAC, Israel and Zionism.

    • Stephen Bellamy said,

      Ben you can’t libel a country. A country is not a ” person”.

      • Ben said,

        How about malevolent lying, instead of libel and slander?

  3. Steven Johnston said,

    Well I hope I get in the good books here by saying that I would never support any BDS movement, as that is just a pathetic reform organisation.
    Do I think Israel should exist? The answer would be a resounding no! But then it would be same for any country. I would not take any side in this conflict.
    I was asked to join the Palestinian Solidarity campaign and refused, I also spoke against my union branch affiliating to them and won that vote.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Well done Steven some off the idiots probably thought PIRA were socialist.

      • Steven Johnston said,

        Well Southpaw says it’s socialism to fight exploitation by foreigners. Surely he would back this and a Palestinian Ho Chi Minh!

  4. seditionsquare said,

    I had my own doubts about BDS – that is, until I actually talked to activists and educated myself about their aims. It’s about Israelis who profit from Palestinian exploitation, not Israelis themselves. The incompetent article above neglects to mention that the boycott echoes the anti-Apartheid campaign against South Africa (including the same people, such as Roger Waters for example) with much the same rhetoric. I’ve never heard anyone from BDS accusing anyone of ‘looking Zionist’, and (significantly) neither has Postone. It’s nothing to do with Judaism, as much as the Israeli right (and their sympathisers) insist it is. In fact, they have attempted to deliberately confuse the situation BY linking Jewishness to Israel to territory – not once does Postone consider this in thinking about ‘existential threat’: what are the terms of the various threats to ‘existence’? This is someone who apparently works for a bloody university! Finally, I do not understand how the cartoon is anti-Semitic (it is possible I am lacking some context, here). The cartoonist appears to be linking the plight of one Semitic people (Arabs) to another (Jews), at the hands of fascism (represented by a swastika). How is this anti-Semitic? Surely it’s anti-fascist!

    • Jim Denham said,

      seditiionsquare: “The incompetent article above neglects to mention that the boycott echoes the anti-Apartheid campaign against South Africa (including the same people, such as Roger Waters for example) with much the same rhetoric.”

      From the “incompetent” article: “The West takes the model of South Africa; many Palestinian militants think the model is Algeria; and there is no analogy. I don’t mean a moral analogy, I the mean analogy falls down because of demographic and political facts. There was in South Africa, only a small minority of white South Africans. There are as many Israeli Jews as there are Palestinians. So the Algerian or South African tactics are not going to work. But you have an extremely unfortunate marriage, as it were, between the Israeli right, which is becoming further and further right, and what I regard as the Palestinian right.”

      So, do learn to read, seditionsquare.

      And I would add, that the day anyone looks to the anti-Semitic buffoon Roger Waters for a political lead, is the day we all might I as well give up: https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/news/wtf/roger_waters_labeled_an_open_hater_of_jews_by_human_rights_group.html

      • seditionsquare said,

        No, YOU learn to read: he doesn’t mention the anti-Apartheid campaign anywhere, even though that disproves his point that the boycott is peculiar to Israel (propping up his argument that left-wing attacks are unhealthily focused on Israel). That he’s ignorant of it is obvious, because he blathers on about ‘demographics’ and ‘political facts’ being different in Israel. So what? Apartheid means the separation (apart-hood) of races in a single country – a clear moral wrong. Whether or not you agree, the fact that left-wing anti-Zionist movements CAN extrapolate from one human experience (South African black people) to another (Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories) proves they aren’t being racist; racists by definition do not accept that there IS one human experience.

        For instance, hard-right racists like Netanyahu weigh Jews above Arabs, insisting on a ‘Jewish state’, denying the Palestinian Right of Return, expanding settlements on the West Bank, controlling and occasionally obliterating parts of the Occupied Territories, and claiming collective punishment (through all of the above and more) on the whole Palestinian people for the actions of Hamas.

        Now, other countries may comparable things. I have seen and participated in plenty of left-wing discussions about Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and so on. But none of these claim to be democracies. None of them have a nuclear bomb. None of them are nearly as close to the US.

      • Jim Denham said,

        Read what Postone has to say about South Africa, seditionsquare: and then apologise for writing the untrue statement (ie lying, either deliberately, or through ignorance or lack of rigorous thought): “The incompetent article above neglects to mention that the boycott echoes the anti-Apartheid campaign against South Africa”, you ignoramous!

      • seditionsquare said,

        Name-calling as usual (incidentally, ‘ignoramus’ is Latin for ‘we don’t know’, which sort of undermines it as an insult).

        Do feel free to CTRL + F the page and point me to where Postone mentions the anti-apartheid campaign central to any serious discussion of modern anti-Zionism.

      • Jim Denham said,

        seditionsquare: you claimed Postone didn’t take into account the SA anaogy – but he clearly does. So you’re wrong. OK? You may not like or agree with what he says, but you were simply WRONG when you wrote ““The incompetent article above neglects to mention that the boycott echoes the anti-Apartheid campaign against South Africa (including the same people, such as Roger Waters for example) with much the same rhetoric.”

        Why not simply admit your mistake, and move on? Then we can discuss the substantive issue about the SA analogy, and why it’s wrong.

      • seditionsquare said,

        Where does he mention anti-apartheid?

      • Jim Denham said,

        He deals with the SA analogy: accept that FACT, you idiot — then we can move on. If you’re incapable of accepting a verifiable FACT, then we have no basis for further discussion.

      • seditionsquare said,

        More name-calling. Okay, I’ll make it simple: quote the part where he talks about the anti-Apartheid campaign, crucial to any consideration of the left-wing anti-Zionist movement.

    • Makhno said,

      “It’s about Israelis who profit from Palestinian exploitation, not Israelis themselves”

      Except it isn’t, otherwise academic and cultural boycotts wouldn’t exist. Don’t be disingenuous.

      And Roger Waters and his band The Pink Floyd are both awful.

      • Steven Johnston said,

        Yep, reform movements suck bigger than that awful concept album “The Wall”.
        If there is any racism in this terroritory am I allowed to say that it will never end, nor will there ever be peace until we have replaced capitalism with socialism?

      • seditionsquare said,

        I see that I have uncovered some sort of Roger Waters blacklist because of some Ultimate Guitar note about a provocative stunt at a gig once (and not because of anything more explicit or substantive than that, presumably because there is none). That’s not that important to me, nor is his music, nor whatever valuable opinions on his music you have. My point was he is a prominent example of crossover between South African anti-Apartheid and anti-Israeli Apartheid.

      • seditionsquare said,

        “Except it isn’t, otherwise academic and cultural boycotts wouldn’t exist.”

        BDS is, in the main, not concerned with ordinary Israelis but with Israel’s exploitation of Palestinians (and so the Israeli state, not Israelis or Jews as a whole). Academia is directly connected to the state; it’s part of the state’s apparatus. Culture is harder to pin down, but there is a definite role that the state and establishment have in the production of culture – speaking from my background of archaeology and heritage, I know that that industry in particular has long been involved in disenfranchising/downplaying Arab history to reaffirm what it believes to be ‘Israeli’ culture throughout history. This reinvented ‘history’ is then sold to tourists and schoolchildren throughout Israel.

        The history of the British Empire has been expounded in much the same way.

    • Ben said,

      “…The cartoonist appears to be linking the plight of one Semitic people (Arabs) to another (Jews), at the hands of fascism (represented by a swastika). ….”

      The National Socialists and their collaborators successfully committed genocide against the Jews of Europe, murdering most of them. The Israelis Jews defended themselves successfully against an attempt by the Palestine Arabs and their fellow Arabs to wipe them out too just three years after. The Arab casualties in that conflict were relatively light even though they lost, because of the humane ethos of the Zionists.

      To compare Jewish actions against the Palestine Arabs with the German actions against the Jews of Europe is an obscene and malicious lie.

      • Steven Johnston said,

        Damn those Arabs for not appreciating the generosity of the Israelis in keeping casualties to a minimum.

        NB This is called irony, Ben and me are both masters in it.

      • seditionsquare said,

        What the hell are you talking about? What definition of “humane ethos” encapsulates destroying 50% of Palestinian homes within 2 years and making refugees of over a million people (87% of the Palestinian population)? None of those people are allowed to return, nor their descendents, because Israel is constitutionally a ‘Jewish state’. Not only that, Israel has conducted war after war in the same callous way, electing the perpetrators of hideous crimes (Ariel Sharon, for one) to high office. It controls Gaza like a prison camp, leaving it in a state of perpetual humanitarian crisis, and then uses the resulting extremism as pretext for ever tighter, murderous repression.

        Never again is what we said after WW2. As the cartoonist implies, look at Israel now.

      • Ben said,

        “…What the hell are you talking about?…”

        I’m talking about the repeated attempts by the Palestine Arabs and their Arab allies to exterminate the Jews of Palestine. Both Steve Johnston and seditionsquare take the attempted genocide of the Palestine Jews and Israelis very lightly. They seem to think that a nation and a people that tries to wipe out the Jews should not be held to account for their crime, and that they are absolved from responsibility for the consequences.

        In 1948 the Palestine Arab and Arab League leaders said that there will be a massacre of Jews such as the world has not seen since the days of the Mongols. The Arab leaders said that they will drive the Jews into the sea. The British said that the Arabs will hit the Jews for six, and they prepared to send ships to pick up what they expected to be the few Jewish survivors. The Americans said that Israel will not last for more than three weeks. The nations of the world expected a repeat of the extermination that had occurred in Europe just three years before, and viewed the prospect with the same callousness and cold indifference that they had shown towards the Jews in WW2.

        Well, the days when Jews could be maltreated in that way without punishment being inflicted on the Jew-haters are over. But it is a credit to the Jews did not inflict on the Arabs what the Arabs tried to inflict on them.

      • seditionsquare said,

        You have absolutely no idea what ‘the Jews’ inflicted on ‘the Arabs’ (to be sure, a racially charged assessment if ever I saw one) – or more likely you refuse to admit it. I’ve already told you how they punished an entire race in a military struggle, and yet you still fail to comprehend it. I don’t doubt there was Palestinian anti-Semitism in and before 1948, but that doesn’t give ANYONE a blank cheque to massacre and devastate civilians! I see you omitted to mention that there was Jewish terrorism as much as there was Palestinian – in fact, Irgun’s leader Begin eventually became Prime Minister, overseeing the Shatila massacre!

        That’s what happens when you turn a blind eye to racism and brutality: innocent people get killed. I’m not interested in an ‘Israel’ or a ‘Palestine’, nor massaging their respective nationalisms. I want to stop people dying for no reason and people like you defending the murderers.

        Don’t try to pass off any more bullshit about ‘humane ethos’ on me.

  5. Steven Johnston said,

    “It’s about Israelis who profit from Palestinian exploitation”

    Surely it would be racist to oppose that as is there a list of races that you consider it acceptable to profit from Palestinian exploitation?
    You see, this is why movements like this are absurd. Instead of seeking to end exploitation of the working class, they just want each race of workers to be exploited by their own race. Crazy and they call this socialism?

    • Ben said,

      Under capitalism man exploits man. Under socialism it’s the other way round.

    • seditionsquare said,

      It isn’t an issue of race, at least not for me or for any left-wing campaign on this issue I’ve seen or heard of. Given that Palestinians are inexorably tied to the Palestine region (controlled by Israel), there isn’t a whole lot of point in talking about any other anti-Palestinian forces (ISIS have taken the Palestinian camp in Yarmouk, Syria, however, killing refugees there).

  6. seditionsquare said,

    No, it isn’t necessarily socialist. It doesn’t make any demands about the working class. That might be a setback in your eyes (and it could be), but somehow I think taking the moral principle of anti-racism and uniting everyone behind it is socialism by example regardless.

    • Steven Johnston said,

      So at the same time it is and it isn’t socialism?

  7. Steven Johnston said,

    ‘Ere! I am not having this Jim, you buddy Southpaw, told me, in another thread, that socialism is supporting national liberation movements. you cannot be against the BDS as you must be opposed to exploitation by foreign capitalists. Unless you can prove that those capitalists, in Israel, who are exploiting the Palestinian workers, are themselves of Palestinian origin, you must get behind this.

    It is interesting that you mention apartheid in this thread, surely during this conflict you must be (snigger) on the side of the Boers?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Boer_War

  8. Rilke said,

    Ignoramus has ‘we lack knowledge’ as the etymology, etymology does not determine meaning as such. The meaning of words is dependent on their use within the general structure of language that is itself integral to a ‘form of life’. Wittgenstein says so and he is never wrong on things like that.

  9. Steven Johnston said,

    Seditionsquare your last comment was spot on! I’ve nothing to add to it, as I agree with it, so let’s just see what BS they come up to dispute it.

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