Yes, Sometimes It Is Anti-Semitism

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

Ken Livingstone, formerly mayor of London, presently a member in very bad standing of the British Labour Party, can be thanked for this much: He has provided a painful moment of clarity in the debate over whether anti-Zionism is, at least sometimes, anti-Semitism.

The answer is yes. For instance, when one says that when Hitler came to power “in 1932 [sic], he was supporting Zionism,” as Livingston recently did, or when one says that not hating all Jews, just Jews in Israel, is not an anti-Semite, as he subsequently did.

This bears explanation. But first comes some context, and dispensing with certain reflexive objections. So let’s start here: Last week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suspended MP Naz Shah, a rising political star, from the party under heavy pressure from party colleagues after a series of her Facebook posts reached the public eye. In one, Shah suggested transferring Israel—by which she presumably meant the Jewish majority, not the Arab minority—to the United States. In another, she implied similarity between Israel and Nazi Germany. The list quickly grew.

Perhaps suspending Shah pending further investigation, and her own strong apology, could have succeeded as damage control. But then Livingstone, phoned by a BBC radio show for comment, made his Hitler remark. From there, the furor mushroomed. Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate for mayor of London in Thursday’s election, said that Livingstone has “got to be kicked out” of the party. Again under pressure, Corbyn suspended Livingstone, his long-time political ally.

Next to be suspended were three local politicians, including one who’d tweeted to an Israeli soccer star, “you and your country doing the same thing that hitler did to ur race in ww2.” By this week, the Telegraph reported that quietly, over the last two months, a Labour body had suspended 50 members for anti-Semitism and racism. That can be read as confirmation that Labour has a problem bigger than Livingstone, or that it’s intent on eradicating the problem.

The debate continues. So I’ll leave aside insider British politics to get back the larger philosophical question.

First, it’s a given that criticizing Israel does not in itself constitute anti-Semitism. As a frustrated Jewish Labourite told me on the phone from Northwest London this week, “I’m quite unhappy about what the state of Britain does and I’ll criticize it fiercely but no one can accuse me, with any degree of sense, of prejudice against the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish.” In Israel’s case, the ongoing occupation, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies in particular, provide much reason for legitimate and necessary opposition. But if treating all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism is a tactic for avoiding questions or debate, it is also intellectually dishonest to dismiss the very possibility that some political attacks on Israel might reflect a particular antipathy toward Jews.

Second, it doesn’t much matter if, say, Ken Livingstone doesn’t think of himself as an anti-Semite, any more than it matters whether Donald Trump thinks his way of talking about women is misogynist. The measure of bigotry is in the words, actions and context, not in the possible bigot’s self-evaluation.

Third, it may indeed be unfair to devote so much attention to possible anti-Semitism on the left. It occurs so much more explicitly and viciously on the right. But, yes, I hold the left to a higher standard.

But, yes, I hold the left to a higher standard. Had I lived my life in London rather than Jerusalem, I imagine I would prefer that my right hand wither rather than use it to vote Tory. The foundation of progressive politics is the equal value of all human beings and their inherent responsibility to each other. Anti-Semitism, like any bigotry, betrays that principle.

Fourth, Corbyn’s supporters are right that his opponents within Labour are exploiting the controversy, as are the Conservatives. But Corbyn is also particularly vulnerable. As a backbencher, he exhibited what can most charitably be called obliviousness to the character of groups he endorsed for their opposition to Israel. …

Read the rest here.