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No direction home: the tragedy of the Jewish left

The loss of a political home on the left and the latter’s transformation into a hostile force is a form of double exile for Jews such as me. So how did it happen? 

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, Paul Embery, found himself hit by a Twitter storm. Paul is a trade unionist, a socialist and is emerging as a polemical journalist of some distinction. Like many, but not all who identify as Blue Labour, he argues strongly for the democratic and radical possibilities of Brexit, which he views as a class issue. He found himself engaged in a Twitter spat with Mike Harding, who describes himself on his website as a “singer, songwriter, comedian, author, poet, broadcaster and multi-instrumentalist”, and there is no reason to doubt that he is all those things and more. He views Brexit as a horrible prelude to a new world war. Mike is from Crumpsall in Manchester, Paul is from Dagenham in the borderlands of Essex and east London. It was never going to go well.

Harding posted a tweet, roughly consistent with the vision of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, which stated that a “nation is not a home” but a collection of individuals who share a status of citizenship and not anything like a “homeland”. Paul replied that “this encapsulates the divide within society between a rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian middle class… and a rooted, communitarian, patriotic working-class”. Mike Harding suggested that Paul Embery should read Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Muhammad Ali once said that “you never get knocked out by a punch you see coming”. It is a good rule in politics, too. Paul Embery did not go to university and he did not spend his youth reading histories of the Soviet Union. His first paid work almost ended when he called the shelf stackers in his local Asda out on a wildcat strike. He joined the fire brigade when he was 22. He had never heard the word “trope” until, in this Twitter spat, he was accused of using one. I, however, am precisely a “rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian” and I knew that the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” was minted by Stalin and his executioners in the show trials to exterminate Jews, particularly Trotskyists, for whom this became the standard expression. I cannot hear it without the dread fear of the knock on the door by the Cheka in the early hours. Paul, because of what he’d written – and then, by association, Blue Labour – was accused of anti-Semitism.

This was a novel experience for me. I have been on the receiving end of plenty of anti-Semitic abuse, from many different angles, and I thought it had culminated when I was denounced on prime-time Turkish television news as being an “agent of Zionism” for supporting the Kurds in Syria. I had never, however, been accused of being an anti-Semite. It was a new experience and forced me to reflect on its resurgence as one of the defining features of this political moment which, following Gramsci, I define as an interregnum in which there is a “fraternisation of opposites and all manner of morbid symptoms pertain”.

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Despite the systematic eradication of continental Jewry, the idea of the shadow power of Jewish money as a symbol of capitalist cosmopolitanism is pervasive in the politics of Hungary, Poland and Russia, where a remnant of Jews still live. What is even more striking is the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the only European polity where European Jews survived intact – Britain. It is also the case that this revival has been most intense and pervasive in the politics of the left. This requires careful analysis and understanding as the charge of anti-Semitism has become entangled in the politics of the Labour Party and its leadership, and in the politics of Brexit and anti-imperialism.

As a political position Blue Labour, of which I am a co-founder, draws upon a rich heritage of socialist and religious thought and practice. We try to reconcile the revolutionary and Leveller John Lilburne with his contemporary Archbishop Laud in our defence of liberty and resistance to enclosures. We draw upon Catholic social thought and Machiavelli’s discourses in our understanding of civic democracy, social organisation and resistance to commodification. Last October, I went on the pilgrimage of the Arbaeen as a guest of the Shia community of Iraq to honour the sacrifice of Imam Huseyn in 680 CE and their more recent sacrifice in defeating Islamic State (IS). We also take great inspiration from the Jewish trade union called the Bund, which operated in eastern Europe in the early 20th century and linked exploitation and oppression in the development of its socialism, as well as the self-organised communal forms of exilic Judaism that characterises eastern European Jewry before its destruction. We respect religious traditions and their defence of the integrity of the person when confronted by the inhumane utilitarianism of both the market and the state.

Blue Labour takes as its starting point the defeat of fascism at home and abroad and the faithfulness of the British working class to Labour. For us, the survival of the Jewish community in Britain is a source of pride and wonder. Blue Labour begins its reflection on what Marx called the “Jewish question” by recognising the tragedy of the Jews who remain in the diaspora as a much-diminished minority in a growing world, just as we recognise the tragedy of the Palestinians and support them in resisting the dispossession that Israel enacts.

The Jewish question pervades these several debates in different ways. In the Brexit debate, the Jews are considered by many to be archetypal Remain supporters, “citizens of nowhere” and “rootless cosmopolitans” who prosper from the weakening of borders and democracy and benefit from the free movement of people, money, services and goods. This leads us on to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership: the two issues that have united opposition to it have been his stance on Brexit and anti-Semitism, which are connected in his politics with the assertion of democratic sovereignty and opposition to colonialism, and, therefore, Israel.

Within Labour, it is widely asserted that the accusation of anti-Semitism has been “weaponised”, ie used dishonestly by opponents of Corbyn to undermine him and his radicalism, which is expressed in support for the Palestinians and a condemnation of Israel. The Jewish community is seen as part of the “Israel lobby”. That in turn opens up the issue of colonial politics and Britain’s refusal to recognise the pervasive imperial influence in its foreign policy, one manifestation of which is its support for Israel. The argument and iconography of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), an infamous fake purporting to document a Jewish conspiracy for global control, has taken a left-wing form in modern Labour politics. Corbyn’s 2012 Facebook comment in support of a mural in London’s East End depicting hook-nosed bankers plundering the poor of the world – which he later expressed regret for – is an example of this.


The old prejudice: the mural “Freedom of Humanity” in east London, before it was removed in 2012

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he tragedy is that the contribution to socialism and communism is one of the major Jewish stories of the 19th and 20th centuries, up there with American immigration, the Holocaust, the foundation of the state of Israel and the disappearance of the ancient Jewish communities of the Arab lands. It is not just that Jewish theorists and leaders such as Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky and Leon Trotsky played a constitutive role in the formation of communism, and that Eduard Bernstein, Harold Laski and Max Adler also formed the fundamental opposition between social democracy and revisionism. There is also the fact that millions of Jews supported and considered the left to be their natural political home.

Forty-five per cent of members of the German Social Democratic Party were Jews in 1920. The majority of Russian Menshevik activists, as well as Bolshevik leaders, were Jews with a loathing of tsarism and a strong commitment to communism as an ideal of equality and justice. The ultimate victory of Stalin following the Russian Revolution should not obscure this. He rose in alliance with two Jews, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, who he then murdered when his dominance was assured.

In Britain, there was a strong Jewish representation of MPs and party members in Labour, as well as a virtual domination of the Communist Party. Some of them were members of my family; poor working-class Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe – tailors, fenning hands, seamstresses and pressers – who saw in the left a strong anti-fascist force that cared for the poor. My Mum, who was born in Hackney, learned to read from the Daily Worker, brought round daily, unread, by her Uncle Dave.

This story did not turn out well. The Soviet Union became increasingly hostile to Jews with the extermination of the Bund and the massacre of Jewish intellectuals in the 1930s. After the Second World War, there was the so-called Doctors’ Plot of 1953, in which a group of Jewish doctors were accused of trying to poison Stalin, and the Slánsky trial of 1952 in Czechoslovakia, in which leading Jewish communists were accused of supporting the Yugoslav leader Tito and secretly working with “Zionist-imperialists”. Rudolf Slánsky, the deputy leader of the party, was publicly hanged in Prague. This period of anti-Semitism climaxed in the Soviet Union with the revival of a tsarist policy of limiting Jewish participation in public institutions.

The tragedy of the Jewish left has been a long time in the making.

We think often of the victims of Nazism, but the persecution of the Jews in the Soviet Union initiated by Stalin also caused a huge loss of life and hope for eastern European Jews. This could be seen as a form of progressive suicide in that, unlike Nazism, many Jews believed in communism, and made sacrifices and devoted their lives to it.

There was a strong belief that a secular society built upon equality and justice would eliminate poverty, exploitation and oppression, and allow Jews to participate fully in a world that had persecuted and excluded them for centuries. More than that, it was also the liberation of Jews from their religion through a scientific belief in progress and a general hostility to faith as the ultimate form of “false consciousness”. They even had a word for this process, “auto-emancipation”, and early Zionism was also part of that story, of the emancipation of Jews from Judaism and all peoples from God. They were the original progressives and believed in the liberation of mankind from superstition and dogma.

Nazism is often cited as a reason for the state of Israel, but its appeal also lay in the experience of Jews in the Soviet Union. Both assimilation in Germany and western Europe and socialism in Russia and eastern Europe had led to state-sanctioned hatred of the Jews.

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Since the Second World War, and growing in volume and intensity in our time, there has been a resurgence of anti-Semitism on the left that equates Jews with capitalism, imperialism and racism in the form of its two largest communities, those of the United States and Israel. The loss of a political home on the left and the latter’s transformation into a hostile force is a form of double exile for Jews such as me who are still faithful to the idea of the leadership of the poor, of a democratic resistance to the domination of capital, and of a belief in a common good in which Jews are obliged to participate.

It is another dispossession.

So how did it happen? How could it be that the most persecuted and socialist of people, the Jews of eastern Europe, should become, in the mind of their political descendants, the architects and puppet masters of systematic imperialism, colonialism and slavery? How could it be that what August Bebel, one of the founders of the German Social Democrats, called “the socialism of fools” became the dominant creed of much of the progressive intelligentsia? How did it come to be that the only country in the Middle East with free and democratic trade unions, with a welfare state, with very high rates of literacy and low rates of child mortality, with women’s equality and gay rights, is seen by so many on the left as on a par with Islamic State?

It’s a question that we have to understand because the coalition between post-colonial politics, Islamism and progressive thought is the dominant one of our time. How did the left end up translating and promoting The Elders of the Protocols of Zion for a digital age? Part of the answer is that the central assumptions of the left have all turned against the Jews. There used to be a serious socialist commitment to a different kind of economy, based on rational principles and co-operation rather than the frenzy of waste and competition. The left position was based upon class and exploitation rather than identity. This element has fallen away and is no longer the central feature of progressive ideology.

It is hard to imagine a time when socialism was seen as productively superior to capitalism. But, although there are some murmurings about international forms of regulation and economic democracy, today’s socialist programmes are not based upon capitalism’s lack of productive efficiency and scientific management. Tax and regulation are the order of the day. The price system is believed more resilient than central planning.

There are those like me who argue that a different economy is reasonable, plausible and desirable, based upon labour value, economic democracy and respect for work, but we are a declining tribe, a bit like those Hasidic groups who follow a dead rabbi.

In place of a political economy, or a scientific socialism, as it used to be known, has emerged a post-colonial politics that organises itself around an opposition to and a reckoning with imperialism.

Instead of a constructive alternative in terms of democratic organisation of the firm or state control of capital, there is a denunciation of the “1 per cent” who control the world’s resources. That is the deep story of the left, the idea that the economy excludes most people through the concentration of ownership by finance capital and that the world is run for the benefit of this elite. The socialism of fools has always seen those people as being Jews, the puppet masters of the sham theatre of competition when all is collusion, who thus reveal the truth behind the mirage of the invisible hand of the market.

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Left anti-Semitism may partly be a result of socialism’s failure to constrain capitalism, but that does not make it any less real. In fact, from within left ideology, anti-Semitism has a role in making socialism’s failure to constrain capitalism more plausible.

From this perspective, Israel is not an example of Jewish self-determination, nor a response to sustained forms of oppression, but a manifestation of colonialism and imperialism. It is considered a European project sustained by the support of the United States. The US is in turn seen as essentially subordinate to the “Jewish lobby”, or more commonly the “Israel lobby”, which is sustained by finance and the soft power of American corporate entertainments and media interests, which are, on the whole, assumed to be owned and run by Jews.

This, allied to the wealth of the American Jewish community, is then presented as the real truth. The conspiracy says: you may think you like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, you may even be amused by Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, you may occasionally enjoy watching The Wire or reading Phillip Roth but, in reality, you are perpetuating the domination of culture by a form of control that excludes criticism of Israel and reproduces capitalist hegemony, sexism, racism, colonialism and imperialism. As George Orwell wrote in his essay on Dickens, “all art is propaganda”. Harvey Weinstein was the cherry on the cake in offering supposed proof for this theory.

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The Jews and Israel are simply “on the wrong side of history”. Israel is dubbed an “apartheid state”, based on the systematic dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinian population. The two faces of Jewish threat in the 1920s were Trotsky and the Rothschilds. Today it is George Soros and Binyamin Netanyahu. Jews are still seen as two-faced. They want a state for themselves but globalisation for everyone else.

The “socialism of fools” conflates the critique of capitalism with the power of Jews. That is its fatal conceit. George Soros is not to be understood as the cause or the controller of capitalist globalisation, but he is a strong and super-rich advocate of that system who seeks to subordinate democracy to the free movement of capital and labour and I believe it is right to oppose him. It is wrong, however, to view him as representing the “Jewish interest”, or as the mystery of capitalism revealed.

In the secular left analysis, which rejects religion as a motivating force in people’s lives, Islamic State and Hamas are anti-colonial movements resisting the domination of Western interests and culture.

Indeed, it is rare on the left to hear any analysis of Islam as a form of imperialism that includes slavery in its political economy. It seems that colonialism and imperialism were exclusively born in the 18th century and any instances before then don’t really count. The exception to this mindset is the politics developed by the Kurds in Turkey and Syria, in which this point about these aspects of Islam’s past is well made.

I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Kurdistan and I visit Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, at least once a year. I was there when the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, had just defeated IS in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, where Yazidis and Christians used to live. I followed a day after battle and I saw muddy holes full of dead women’s bodies, killed because they were too old to be sold into slavery. I saw crucified bodies nailed on to walls and fences; decapitated corpses on the street.

What was remarkable about this was that I could not get anybody interested in it when I returned to London, not in the Labour Party and not really in the Church either. The gist of what I heard was that Tony Blair had a lot to answer for in the Middle East. In that same week, a Palestinian was killed at an Israeli checkpoint. That generated powerful anger – and I felt it.

The explanation that I came to accept for this is that IS’s activities are seen as an unfortunate result of failed policy, Western colonialism and oppression. Israel’s actions, however, are believed to be the direct consequence of imperialism. Reason requires an understanding of cause and effect, and Zionism is believed to have led to the rise of Salafist Islam: in that way, Israel and the United States are considered responsible for Islamic State.

I know that the founders of Zionism understood nothing about Islam. As progressives they considered themselves to be a benefit to the local population by increasing literacy rates and cutting child mortality. They were Fabian in their approach. My experience of working within many different traditions with the Muslim community in Britain is that the dispossession of the Palestinians is considered a great wrong that should be corrected as a matter of justice. This is not a view held only by Wahhabists but also by the mainstream of Islamic thought and within the Muslim community.

Muslim immigration to Britain means that the political narrative held by many Muslims does matter greatly in our politics. Muslims, on the whole, vote Labour. Solidarity with the Palestinians is based upon religious and communal solidarity rather than simply a political preference. We can see this in the developing narrative that Labour is anti-Semitic and the Conservatives are Islamophobic. Communal strife is becoming part of our national politics.

Because Jews feel snubbed and reviled in their inherited home on the left, while the right is also turning ugly, it is not difficult to understand why there is genuine anxiety in the Jewish community. More than this, the unity of progressive forces do not view the Jews as a small and traumatised people; they do not view Jews as having a two-thousand-year history of defencelessness.

Jewish life was extirpated in western Europe, eastern Europe and throughout the Muslim world, where Jews had lived for many millennia. And Jews are what they have always been, a small people (14.5 million, 0.2 per cent of the global population) with genuine reasons to be fearful for their existence on the face of the Earth. In Salafist Islam they confront an implacable and violent foe. Even if such extremists constitute a small minority, the Muslim community worldwide is far larger (at 1.8 billion), and growing.

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I was recently in Baghdad, where Jews have lived since the Babylonian exile, and there was not one Jew left. I found myself listening to Boney M in a more meaningful way. Where had they gone? In finding an answer to that question the tragedy of the Jewish left took its Arab form. Before the Second World War the Jews of Iraq participated fully in a generous and inclusive vision of Iraqi identity. As with the Social Democrats in Germany, as with the Mensheviks in Russia, half the members of the Iraqi Communist Party were Jews. Left-wing newspapers and journals proliferated in Baghdad.

In that city there was a three-thousand-year presence of a self-organised Jewish community that produced the great masterpiece of Jewish exilic life, the Babylonian Talmud. That community also built schools, hospitals, banks and houses. In old Baghdad, the mark of this history is everywhere, but there are no people of that heritage living there. Nationalist modernity had no place for them. The Jews experienced an unprecedented and extremely nasty pogrom in June 1941 in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the pro-Nazi government in Baghdad. Hundreds were killed and homes smashed as the Jews were targeted as agents of the British. (The Nazis were also anti-colonial.) Alongside this, many Baghdadis were killed defending the Jews, in an event that had no real precedent over the three millennia of Jewish life in Mesopotamia.

A few years later, the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 led to mass firings of Jewish people from Iraqi state jobs, the denial of civil rights and a spate of mysterious bombings in synagogues and Jewish community centres. There was also the public hanging of Shifaq Ades in Basra in October 1948. He was a prominent businessman and anti-Zionist who was charged with selling weapons to both Israel and the Communist Party. In 1951-52, El-Al planes arrived from Israel and there was a mass evacuation of the Jewish community.

The tragedy of the Jewish left, then, is that there is no recognition, by the left, of Jews as a dispossessed, oppressed people. Jews are not defined by the very thing that exiled them – imperial colonial domination. Jews are now considered alongside the Greeks, the Babylonians, the Romans. As a consequence, Jews are dispossessed of their history, and of the left as their home and hope in exile. The choice before them is brutal. Jews either affirm equality, justice and liberation and renounce Israel, or they accept Israel and become part of Babylon.

That is the tragedy of the Jewish left, who are baited and despised in the home they built in exile. The fraternisation of opposites and the morbid symptoms are taking centre stage. 

Maurice Glasman is a peer and co-founder of Blue Labour

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the Common Good Foundation.

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake