In Marx’s essay On the Jewish Question, written in 1844, there are two contrasting sets of themes vis-à-vis the Jews. In Part II of the essay Marx deploys some well-known negative stereotypes, according to which: the mundane basis of Judaism is self-interest, egoism, or, as Marx also calls it, ‘an anti-social element’; the worldly religion of the Jew is huckstering; and the Jew’s jealous god – ‘in face of which no other god may exist’ – is money. The emancipation of the Jews is said by him to be equivalent to the emancipation of mankind from Judaism. Part I, on the other hand, presents a version of secular democracy in which the Jews, like any religious or other particularistic grouping, may retain their religion and their separate identity consistently with the state itself rising above such particularisms, and rendering these politically irrelevant.

Though Marx himself regards this – political emancipation – as an incomplete form of emancipation, he nonetheless articulates a genuine type of moral universalism: different faiths, ethnicities, peoples, have a right to assert their specific identities and shared beliefs within the free secular order of the democratic state. The distinctions between such groups just cease to have a political bearing. Marx does not extend this argument beyond the single state to the global arena (that not being part of the discursive context), but the correlate at international level of what he argues in Part I of On the Jewish Question is today embodied in the notion of a right of nations to self-determination, as affirmed in Article 1.2 of the United Nations Charter.

The contrasting themes of Marx’s essay may be taken as emblematic of the state of affairs obtaining today between Jews and the left. It is not difficult to understand the long affinity there has been between them. Common traditions of opposition to injustice, the commitment within liberal and socialist thought to ideals of equality (whether this is equality under the law or equality in substantive economic terms), opposition to racist and other similar types of prejudice – these things have long served to attract Jews to organisations and movements of the left, and they still do.

Israel as alibi

At the same time, that affinity has now been compromised by the existence of a new climate of antisemitic opinion within the left. This climate of opinion affects a section of the left only, and not the whole of it. But it is a substantial section. Its convenient alibi is the state of Israel – by which I mean that Israel is standardly invoked to deflect the charge that there is anything of antisemitism at work. Israel, so the story goes, is a delinquent state and, for many of those who regard it so, a non-legitimate one – colonialist, imperialist, vehicle of oppression and what have you. Similarly, diaspora Jews who defend Israel within their home countries are not seen as the conduit of Jewish interests and/or opinion in the normal way of any other democratic articulation; they are treated, rather, as a dubious force – the notorious ‘Jewish lobby’ – as if their organised existence were somehow improper.

These themes pitch those who sponsor them out of a genuine, and into a spurious, type of universalism: one where the Jews are special amongst other groups in being obliged to settle for forms of political freedom in which their identity may not be asserted collectively; Jews must be satisfied, instead, merely with the rights available to them as individuals. I call this a spurious universalism because people’s rights to live as they will (subject to the usual constraint of not harming others) is an incomplete right – a truncated and impaired right – if it does not include the freedom to associate with others of their own kind.

To repeat: Israel has been made an alibi for a new climate of antisemitism on the left.

But could it not be, perhaps, that there is no such climate? Could it not be that Israel’s critics are just what they say they are, no more and no less: critics of the policies of successive Israeli governments, just in the same way as there are critics of the governments of every country? Well, it could be. There has been enough to criticise, goodness knows – from the long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to the policy of permitting Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. It not only could be, it even in many cases is, since there are both critics and criticisms of Israel which are not antisemitic – such as the two criticisms I just made. Yet, if it both could be and is, it also in many cases is not. Much of the animus directed at Israel today is of a plainly antisemitic character. It relies (just as Marx did in Part II of On the Jewish Question) on anti-Jewish stereotypes. This can be shown with near mathematical precision; I endeavour to show it in the rest of what I have to say.

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