:: Article

‘The agility of your dialectics’: the left & Israel

By Max Dunbar.


Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimization, Colin Shindler, Continuum 2012

The US writer Ben Cohen, reflecting on the latest mutation of an old and potent lie, drew a distinction between what he described as bierkeller and bistro anti-Semitism. Bierkeller is big, obvious, tabloidal working class racism, it’s brownshirts shouting obscene chants, it’s ‘violence, verbal abuse, commercial harassment, and advocacy of anti-Jewish legal measures.’ Bistro anti-Semitism, Cohen argues, is a more elusive monster, a ‘higher and outwardly more civilized realm’.

Bistro anti-Semites tend to be better with words and so their arguments will be taken more seriously; they can rationalise and disguise their prejudices, to others and also to themselves. Many claim to be fighting against racism, and are so confident in their own moral superiority that in some ways they are more dangerous than the average bierkeller street thug.

Cohen was writing on the publication of a book, The Wandering Who? by Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli jazzman and anti-Zionist celebrity, booked at the SWP’s annual Marxism conference for some years. Except Atzmon went beyond the ‘daring’ practice of substituting ‘Zionist’ for ‘Jew’. He is an outright anti-Semite and conspiracy theorist, who appears to genuinely believe that Jews are trying to control the world, caused the financial crisis, and pretty much had it coming during the 1940s. Cohen read his book:

The Wandering Who finds Atzmon on territory well-trodden by anti-Semites past and present: Holocaust revisionism (one chapter is entitled ‘Swindler’s List’), the rehabilitation of Hitler (he argues that Israel’s behavior makes all the more tempting the conclusion that the Führer was right about the Jews), the separation of Jesus from Judaism (Christ was the original proud, self-hating Jew, whose example Spinoza, Marx, and now, Atzmon himself, have followed).

This is the kind of thing that’s more usually produced in sheds on lined exercise book paper. But Atzmon had no trouble finding a respected radical publisher for his book, which went ahead with the launch despite concerns raised by many of its most popular writers. (This is, if it matters, why nothing from that publisher is going to be reviewed on this site again, at least not under my byline.)

We’ve been here before. Cohen sees Atzmon’s historical antecedent in Trofim Kichko, the Soviet propagandist. The cover of Kichko’s 1963 Judaism without Embellishment ‘featured a swarthy Jew in a prayer shawl, standing in a pulpit, nonchalantly jingling coins in his hands.’ Colin Shindler adds that: ‘Such illustrations were a common feature in the Soviet press. They bore an uncanny resemblance to anti-Jewish cartoons which were published in Nazi-occupied Ukraine during World War II.’

Cohen writes:

Actually, were he still alive, it would be entirely plausible that Kichko would be on a speaking tour of North American and European campuses. An army of professors, commentators, and student activists would line up to shield this progressive intellectual from the smear of anti-Semitism.

Cohen says that the more recognisable bierkeller anti-Semitism has ‘waned sharply’ since WW2 – maybe true in the grand sweep, but it’s still very much a problem; my home city of Manchester recorded a high in anti-Semitic incidents last year, more than London, which has six times the Jewish population. But Shindler’s historical study of the left and Israel has a lot to tell us about how the bistro version has become so dominant in liberal-left thought (the UCU academic and cultural boycott, Labour mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone’s work for Islamist propaganda arm Press TV and dismissal of ‘rich Jews’ who won’t vote for him; Lib Dem peer Jenny Tonge’s declaration that ‘Israel is not going to be there forever… [it] will lose its support and then they will reap what they have sown’ at what developed into an anti-Semitic hate rally held at a London university… really, the list is endless) and how we got to the mess we’re in.

Trofim Kichko was no Soviet anomaly. Until I read Shindler’s book I never realised the level of anti-Semitism under Stalin’s rule, nor the extent to which the Helmsman was in Hitler’s pocket. People think of Stalin’s Jew-hatred as a late, doddering, senescent thing. But Shindler has him as the supplicating prison-bitch of the Nazi-Soviet pact. By the time Hitler overthrew the fledgeling Weimar democracy in 1933, Germany was responsible for almost half Russia’s exports. The Soviets fell over themselves to assure the Nazis that they were happy with the change of regime. They didn’t care that Hitler was killing German communists, and in fact they were happy to hand up even Russian communists like Margarete Buber-Neumann, who ‘found herself taken from her camp in the Soviet Gulag by the NKVD, handed over to the Gestapo at Brest-Litovsk and re-incarcerated in Ravensbrück.’ For people in Buber-Neumann’s position the only tangible difference between the two totalitarianisms was that the prison guards insulted you in different languages.

In the 1950s Artur London, then deputy foreign minister of Czechoslovakia, got caught up in the Slansky trial, a pseudo-legal purge of Czech communists. ‘His prison interrogator told him that Hitler was right about the Jews and ‘we will finish what he started.” London was astonished to see in a brother Communist ‘the mentality of the men who shot my brother, Jean in 1941, who deported my mother, my sister Juliette and her husband, and dozens of my family to Auschwitz and sent them to the gas chamber. I had concealed my race from the Nazis, should I do the same thing in my own socialist country?’

The Daily Worker‘s line on the Slansky trial was ‘Big Business Zionists Implicated’.

Shindler’s book is about the best and the worst of the left. The British labour movement was originally supportive of Israel. Labour conference declared solidarity with the Jewish state eleven times between 1917 and 1945. On his post-liberation visit to the death camps, Labour MP Richard Crossman reflected that ‘European civilisation was not a stable and settled way of life, but a thin crust, constantly threatened by the volcanic violence of vast and understood forces just before the surface.’

Shindler has a fascinating passage on differing UK and US attitudes to Israel. America was an immigrant nation and US thinkers tended to support the Zionist frontier spirit. By contrast, the English, ‘localised for centuries in their own villages and towns’ sympathised more with the Palestinian, ‘defending his 1,000 year old civilisation against the invader.’ During the Suez crisis legendary working class Labour politician Aneurin Bevan rejected ‘the semi-medieval institutions of the Arab nations.’ Leftwingers noted that Nazi war criminals began second careers in the Egyptian government, including SS-Obersturmbahnführer Joachim Daümling, an ex-Gestapo chief who was believed to have modelled Egypt’s secret police on Himmler’s Reich Security main office. Nazism enjoyed a tenebrous half-life in the theocratic world. The left was for rootless cosmopolitanism. It reached the standard parochial view in the end, and by a circuitous route.

Shindler lays out the process. Identity politics, postmodernism and the Vietnam war changed the focus to defending subject peoples from invasion and colonialism. Once the gas chambers had been shut down the priority for Jews turned out to be the same as for anyone else, to make money and provide for their families and get on with their lives. It’s hard to support a noble victim when he walks out of the death camp and becomes a full participant in capitalist life. Shindler: ‘Socialist advocates for Israel such as Leon Blum were long dead. The mentors of the post-war generation were Franz Fanon and Regis Debray. Their icons were Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh.’

Even then, though, some leftists retained support. Jean-Paul Sartre opposed French imperialism in Algeria, and tried, along with Bertrand Russell, to set up a tribunal to indict American leaders of war crimes in Vietnam. Yet he didn’t see why any of this should mean he was automatically against Israel. Sartre wrote that:

I will never abandon this constantly threatened country whose existence ought not to be put into question… I know my stance earns me the enmity of certain Arabs who cannot understand that one is able to be at the same time for Israel and for them.

Sartre’s words were lost because it is Western leftists, far more than Arab equivalents, who consistently failed to understand that basic point, and pursued exclusionary and unworkeable goals accompanied with noisy rhetoric and sinister gesture politics. As Shindler notes, the effect of all this – the boycotts, op-eds, marches, Viva Palestina convoys – was to strengthen the extremists and partisans on both sides of the border, and to isolate and weaken the vast majority of moderate Israelis and Palestinians who want peace and freedom and co-operation.

The quote I’ve used for the title comes from French socialist Léon Blum, in office just before the Second World war (he would later be sold out by the Vichy regime and interned in Buchenwald). Having listened to French Communists defend the Nazi-Soviet pact in elaborate and ridiculous terms, Blum lost his patience: ‘Cease your game… You cannot believe what you are saying. Some other time we will enjoy the agility of your dialectics.’ The gymnastics are set to go on for some time to come. But fewer and fewer people will be watching.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 31st, 2012.