The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
When I wrote about the ideological origins of left-wing anti-Semitism last week, I thought it timely to discuss the matter because of the massive recent attention in Britain to the various examples of anti-Semitism emanating from the Labor Party, dominated in the Jeremy Corbyn era by the far left. I've since discovered that this scandal, though dominating the British headlines for weeks, has not much penetrated the American consciousness. This article in the Tablet and this one in Vox together give a reasonably good summary of the controversy as of late April, though there have been several incidents since then.
Writing in the left-wing Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz yesterday, Joel Braunold, a former member of the executive council of the British National Union of Students (NUS), reaches essentially the same conclusion about left-wing anti-Semitism as I did: The far left refuses to recognize Jews as a legitimate ethnic group, and for Jews to think of themselves as such is "racist." I wrote, "Exactly why Jewish solidarity is racist, but not solidarity among other groups, is never clearly explained, but it seems to have something to do with the fact that Jews aren't a legitimate ethnic group to begin with," and that the far left believes that Jews have a duty to ultimately "assimilate or disappear." Braumold writes:
I would engage those who were part of the hard left—those who saw themselves as belonging to the same leftist faction as Ken Livingstone—on how they could possibly justify their anti-racist credentials when they were doing things that were so offensive to the Jewish community.
It all came down to their inability to understand why Jews were anything more than a religious group….
Jews did not have a place in the traditional liberation campaigns of the NUS. Being Jewish was not the same as being black, LGBTQ, female or disabled. Jews were hated by fascists; the hard left just wanted them to assimilate. According to the hard left in the NUS, being particularist about your Jewish ethnic background was to buy into a racism that was forced upon you.
Braunold, though very critical of his former left-wing comrades, is nevertheless too easy on them. The far leftist opposition to recognizing Jews as an ethnic minority, which Braunold suggests is based on a coherent if misguided version of anti-racism, disappears when it's politically convenient, which suggests a lack of principle. Britain, after all, has a large, vocal contingent of "As a Jews"-left-wing individuals of Jewish descent, typically atheists with no ties to the organized Jewish community, who preface their harsh criticisms of Israel with "As a Jew…" "As a Jews" were mercilessly satirized as "ASHamed Jews" by Howard Jacobson in "The Finkler Question."
The "As a Jews" are especially valuable to the anti-Israel left, for obvious reasons. I have yet to see any British "anti-Zionist" leftist respond to an "As a Jew" by stating something along the line of, "I appreciate your anti-Israel sentiment, but as a good anti-racist I don't recognize Jewish ethnicity. Therefore, being that you're an atheist and all who hasn't observed any Jewish ritual since at least your circumcision, you're not a Jew, and it's highly offensive to cynically use the fact that your ancestors were of the Jewish religion to try to score political points." Instead, the "As a Jews" are trotted out, front and center, to serve as "anti-Zionist" spokesmen.
This accentuates my point that the far left is, in fact, willing to acknowledge Jewish corporate existence beyond religious ties, but, as a I wrote, only "to the extent Jews rely on their residual memories of collective oppression to aid left-wing liberation movements," including and especially the Palestinian nationalist movement. As I've pointed out before, if you're only against racism when it serves your broader political goals, then you're not really against racism.
UPDATE: It's also worth noting that while the British far left relegates Jewish identity, which has always had an ethnic/peoplehood component, to oblivion except when it's political useful, it has racialized Muslims, so much so that the Malia Bouattia, who is of Algerian descent and not of especially dark complexion, is said to be the "first Black president" of the National Union of Students. There's no rhyme or reason to any of this except what's politically useful.