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Dissent MagazineAnti-Semitism and the Left That Doesn't Learn

Dissent MagazineAnti-Semitism and the Left That Doesn't Learn

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Published by: bgeller4936 on Jan 03, 2010
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31/12/09 1:24 PMDissent MagazinePage 1 of 7http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=972
nti-Semitism and the Left thatDoesn’t Learn
ByMitchell Cohen (online)
I. A DETERMINED offensive is underway. Its target is in the Middle East, and it is an oldtarget: the legitimacy of Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas are not the protagonists, the contestedterrains are not the Galilee and southern Lebanon or southern Israel and Gaza. The meansare not military. The offensive comes from within parts of the liberal and left intelligentsia inthe United States and Europe. It has nothing to do with this or that negotiation betweenIsraelis and Palestinians, and it has nothing to do with any particular Israeli policy. After all,this or that Israeli policy may be chastised, rightly or wrongly, without denying the legitimacy of the Jewish state, just as you can criticize an Israeli policy—again, rightly or wrongly— without being an anti-Semite. You can oppose all Israeli settlements in the occupiedterritories (as I do) and you can also recognize that Benjamin Netanyahu, not just Yasir Arafat, was responsible for undermining the Oslo peace process without being an anti-Semiteor anti-Zionist. You don’t have to be an anti-Semite or anti-Zionist to think that some American Jewish organizations pander to American or Israeli right-wingers.The assault today is another matter. It is shaped largely by political attitudes and argumentsthat recall the worst of the twentieth-century left. It is time to get beyond them. But let me be clear: I am “left.” I still have no problem when someone describes me with the “s” word—socialist—although I don’t much care if you call me a social democrat, left-liberal, or someother proximate term. My “leftism” comes from a commitment to—and an ethos of—democratic humanism and social egalitarianism. What I care about isthe reinvention of the best values of the historical left—legacies of British Labour, of the Swedish Social Democrats, of Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum in France, of Eduard Bernstein and Willy Brandt in Germany, of what has always been the relatively small(alas!) tribe in the U.S. associated with names like Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas,Michael Harrington, and Irving Howe. It’s not so much a matter of political programs, letalone labels, as it is of political sensibility. I care about finding a new basis for that oldamalgam of liberty, equality, and solidarity, a basis that makes sense for our “globalizingage.” But I also want a left that draws real, not gestural, conclusions from the catastrophesdone in the name of the left in the 20th century.There is a left that learns and there is a left that doesn’t learn. I want the left that learns toinform our Western societies (a difficult task in George W. Bush’s America) and to help findideas that actually address poverty in what used to be called the third world—rather thanromanticizing it.
31/12/09 1:24 PMDissent MagazinePage 2 of 7http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=972
 After 1989, the left that doesn’t learn was in retreat. It was hushed up by the end of all those wretched communist regimes, by images broadcast worldwide of millions in the streetsdemanding liberation from dictatorships that legitimized themselves in left-wing terms. Youknow who I mean by the left that never learns: those folks who twist and turn until they canexplain or ‘understand’ almost anything in order to keep their own presuppositions—orintellectual needs—intact. Once some of them were actual Leninist; now they more regularly share some of Leninism’s worst mental features—often in postmodern, postcolonial, or evenmilitantly liberal guise. Sometimes they move about on the political spectrum, denouncingtheir former selves (while patting their moral backs). You can usually recognize them withouttoo much difficulty: same voice, that of a prosecuting commissar, even if their tune soundsdifferent. It’s a voice you can often hear as well in ex-communists turned neoconservative.Their explanations, their “understandings,” often rewrite history or re-imagine what is infront of their eyes to suit their own starting point. Since their thinking usually moves along amental closed circuit, it is also the end point. Sometimes it is an idea, sometimes a beliesystem (which they refuse to recognize in themselves), sometimes really a prejudice, andsometimes just ambition. Goblins were often part of the story for the older left that neverlearned, and so too is the case today. If things don’t work out as you know they must, somenefarious force must lurk. After all, the problem couldn’t possibly be your way of thinking, or your inability to see the world afresh, or that you got something very wrong in the past. No, itis much easier to announce that you, unlike anyone who could disagree with you, engage in‘critical’ thinking. And if your critical thinking is criticized in any way, denounce your foeimmediately for “McCarthyism.” Pretend that your denunciation is an argument about theoriginal subject of dispute. That’s easier than answering any of the criticism.Consider the collateral damage done by such cries of “McCarthyism” from professors withlifetime job security: their students will never understand the evils of McCarthyism. Considerhow an understanding of the evils of McCarthyism is subverted when its characteristictechniques—innuendo, for example—are used by opinionated journalists in magazines with wide circulations. Take, for instance, the case of Adam Shatz, once literary editor of the
and now with the
 London Review of Books
. He published an article half a year beforethe beginning of the Iraq war suggesting that people around
were busy hunting for a“new enemy” following the end of the cold war, and that they found it in a combination of militant Arab nationalism and Saddam Hussein.“Though rarely cited explicitly,” Shatz also explained, “Israel shapes and even defines theforeign policy views of a small but influential group of American liberals” (the
,September 23, 2002). In other words, these liberals composed the Israel lobby within the left,and they sought the American war in Iraq for the sake of the Jewish state. True, Shatz didn’thold up a file and say, “I have a list of names of liberals who are really dual loyalists.” Insteadhe pointed to Paul Berman “and like-minded social democrats,” even though theoverwhelming majority of 
’s editorial board including co-editor Michael Walzer wasopposed to the war.Shatz didn’t deign to engage any of Berman’s actual points. And those Berman advanced inthe actual run-up to the Iraq invasion did not focus on Israel, but on liberalism, democracy,and totalitarianism. Arguments made by the author of the words you now read, who was a 
31/12/09 1:24 PMDissent MagazinePage 3 of 7http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=972
left hawk (and is now an unhappy one), likewise had nothing to do with Israel and weredifferent—significantly so—from those made by Berman. Nothing that appeared in
 before or after Shatz’s article lends credence to his innuendos.II.HISTORY MAY not progress but sometimes it regurgitates. Over the last decade, a lot of theold junk has come back. The space for it opened for many reasons. They range from the sadfailures of the social-democratic imagination in the era of globalization to the postmodernand postcolonial influence in universities to George W. Bush’s ascendancy with its many,many miserable consequences (not only in Iraq). The left that never learns often became thesuperego of the twentieth century’s left. Its attempt to play that same role in the twenty-firstcentury needs to be frustrated.Nothing exemplifies the return of old junk more than the ‘new’ anti-Semitism and the badfaith that often finds expression in the statement: “I am anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic.”The fixation on Israel/Palestine within parts of the left, often to the exclusion of all othersuffering on the globe, ought to leave any balanced observer wondering: What is going onhere? This fixation needs demystification.In theoretical terms, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are pretty easy to distinguish. Anti-Semitism is a form of race or national prejudice that crystallized in the nineteenth century. Inpart, it displaced or reinvented anti-Jewish religious prejudice (although centuries of religious prejudice easily wafted into racial and national bigotry). Its target was clearly Jews,not simply “Semites.” It also, for some, mixed matters up further by identifying Jews withcapitalism. Sadly, this became a steady feature within parts of the left that would later,habitually, conflate Jews, capitalism, and Zionism. Oddly enough, that is also what Jewishneoconservatives have tried to do in recent decades. Anti-Zionism means, theoretically, opposition to the project of a Jewish state in response tothe rise of anti-Semitism. Let’s be blunt: there have been anti-Zionists who are not anti-Semites, just as there have been foes of affirmative action who are not racists. But the crucialquestion is prejudicial overlap, not intellectual niceties.Remember the bad old days, when parts of the left provided theoretical justifications of things like “democratic dictatorship.” In fact, if you understood—especially if you bought into—all sorts of assumptions and especially Leninist definitions, the justification works. Any professor of political theory can construct it for you and it will make perfect theoreticalsense. But if you lived in a “democratic dictatorship,” it was intellectual poison. It was alsopoison if you were committed to the best values of the left.They are again at stake when we ask: To what extent does much anti-Zionism replicate themental patterns of anti-Semitism? And to what extent do demagogic articulations of anti-Zionism enhance anti-Semitism? There is a curious thing about anti-Semitism, and it wascaptured in a remark by British novelist Iain Pears that ought to be quoted and re-quotedthese days: “anti-Semitism is like alcoholism. You can go for 25 years without a drink, but if things go bad and you find yourself with a vodka in your hand, you can’t get rid of it.”

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