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Interview “Antisemitism on the British left is both very real and significant”

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In front of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster: the Jewist trade union activist Daniel Randall (Quelle: Gemma Short)

This interview is also available in German.

Belltower.News: You work as a railway worker for the London Tube. What drew you to this profession?
Daniel Randall: I wanted to work somewhere that had a strong trade union culture and that would allow me to be active in the labour movement. Class politics have been important to me for a long time. I also find it rewarding working in a public service job. And of course it has good pay and benefits.

As a trade unionist and Jewish activist who has published extensively on antisemitism and the left’s stance on Israel, do you ever feel lonely? From the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the staunchly anti-Zionist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to Professor David Miller at Bristol University, who was recently fired after he made antisemitic comments about Jewish student unions, antisemitism seems to be rife within the British left…
I don’t know if “lonely” is the right word. But it certainly is true that for a long time, the viewpoint that left antisemitism is a real phenomenon was quite marginal. There were only a very small number of individuals and collectives expressing this criticism – like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, of which I’m part and which is active within the Labour Party. This was very much a minority viewpoint on the British left. In 1984, Steve Cohen published the book “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic”, which was one of the first works to analyse this phenomenon on the British left. It was extremely divisive when it came out.

Have things changes at all since then?
A critique of antisemitism on the left has gained some traction in recent years, even if it continues to be a minority position. Just recently, David Renton, who was a long-term member of the Socialist Workers Party and has since significantly rethought the question of left antisemitism, has published  a book on the topic.

How big is the problem with antisemitism on the British left?
It’s difficult to quantify or measure statistically, it’s an ideological problem. People can be influenced by some elements of it, but not others. At the same time, I don’t want to misidentify the problem. Under Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, some suggested that, if he was elected Prime Minister, there would be an outbreak of antisemitic violence against Jews. I think that misunderstands the nature of the problem. But antisemitism on the British left is both very real and significant. And there are ideological tendencies that resonate strongly on the left and have become  embedded.

Which groups have a particular problem with antisemitism?
From the 1980s on, it was the SWP and their newspaper Socialist Worker, when it took a very sharp turn towards what I call campism – a binary approach, essentially dividing the world into distinct “imperialist” and “anti-imperialist” blocs, with Israel seen wholly as part of the “imperialist” camp. The Workers Revolutionary Party was historically, in the 70s and 80s, also a very influential group on the British left, which had an even more explicitly antisemitic, campist position, although they are no longer a relevant force. The Stalinist tradition, represented by the official Communist Party of Great Britain until its breakup in 1991 and its offshoots, has also been a site of antisemitism, including the Morning Star newspaper, linked to the Communist Party of Britain and quite influential on the contemporary left.

What about more recently?
More recently, left-wing media outlets like the website The Canary have been pushing conspiracy narratives around Jews. Antisemitic ideas were also present in the very heterogeneous anti-globalisation movements from the late 1990s onwards, and the Occupy movement after the financial crash in 2008, where populist critiques of banking and financial elites with antisemitic undertones – as opposed to a class critique of capitalism as a system – were not uncommon. And I say this as someone who was also active in these movements.

In your book, you differentiate between antisemitism on the left and antisemitism of the left. What is uniquely antisemitic about the left?
That distinction comes from the academic Marcel Stoetzler, whose work I draw on. Obviously, the lines are somewhat blurred and the distinction is not always so straightforward. But for me, antisemitism of the left is primarily a kind of antisemitism which has its roots in Stalinism, that sees politics, the world and global crises through a campist schema – dividing everything into an imperialist and anti-imperialist camp. Everyone in the anti-imperialist camp is automatically an agent of progress because of their opposition to “imperialism”, which is often seen as residing only in “the west” and Israel.

What consequences does this view have?
If Israel and Zionism are seen as wholly belonging to the imperialist camp, then any opposition to them – even in the name of a reactionary, theocratic, ultraconservative alternative, for example far-right Islamism – is ordained as progressive. In my book, I call this the “anti-imperialism of fools” [Note: a play on the phrase “antisemitism is the socialism of fools”, attributed to the Austrian left-liberal politician Ferdinand Kronawetter, who opposed the idea that Jewish wealth and power are the source of social injustice].

On the British left, there is often a solidarity reflex with Palestinians and a knee-jerk demonisation of Israel in which there’s little room for differentiation…
I think a solidarity reflex with the Palestinian people is a good thing. They have a right to self-determination, which they are currently denied. Many have suffered displacement. The left should show solidarity with all peoples who have suffered oppression. The problem arises when leftists go beyond solidarity and advocacy of equal rights into demonising Israel, elevating it to the status of a unique and essential evil. Israel is then seen as the quintessential expression of colonialism, imperialism and racism, and not as what it actually is.

Namely?
Israel is a highly-militarised, regionally powerful state with oppressive policies that we can and should criticise. But the Israeli Jews are also a national people who should also be entitled to self-determination. Israel also has a particular history which is bound up with Jewish experiences of oppression. The Jewish Polish Marxist writer Isaac Deutscher called Israel a “life raft” for Jews, who arrived as refugees after the Holocaust. That’s not to downplay any injustices that took place during the formation of Israel. But it’s understandable why Jewish people have a high degree of affinity with the state. So when the left sees it as essentially evil or innately illegitimate, while ignoring similar policies by other states, that has an antisemitic logic. That’s not to say they are conscious, anti-Jewish bigots. But the implication of this view is antisemitic.

Recently, in November 2021, the Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely gave a speech at the London School of Economics on the future of the Middle East. The talk coincided with the anniversary of the National Socialist November pogroms in 1938. As she left the university, she fled to her car, hounded by aggressive protestors, some of whom tried to run towards her and were prevented by police. What has the response been so far?
It’s a complicated situation. I think it’s right to protest – and to protest against Tzipi Hotovely. She is an ally of Benjamin Netanyahu and represents some of the most reactionary and chauvinistic elements of Israeli political life – not just regarding the Palestinians, but also regarding other social questions. She doesn’t suspend her politics on important days of remembrance, so why should others? Some comparisons of the protest in the Jewish press with the persecution of Jews under National Socialism were very unhelpful, to say the least – however threatening the protest may have been.

But surely the aggressive nature of the protests on such a sensitive day against a Jewish Israeli has a very antisemitic aftertaste…
There certainly were antisemites at the protest, or at least people comfortable enough with antisemitism to wave the flags of antisemitic groups. Footage shows the flags of Islamist militias – either of Kata’ib Hezbollah or of the Popular Mobilization Forces, both are Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. It’s not exactly clear which it was in the videos I’ve seen. So some people at the demonstration at LSE, at least, seemed to a have a wider, reactionary political programme. Instagram posts discussing attacking Hotovely’s car were macho posturing, and profoundly ill-judged. But I’m a big advocate of free speech: people have the right to protest. But I think there needs to be a discussion within the Palestine solidarity movement around what politics are actually helpful for the cause. At the last few big marches in support of Palestine in London, the Turkish national flag was very widely waved. Some clearly see the Palestinian cause as part of a wider Islamist politics. And those politics are not emancipatory – they’re oppressive and reactionary.

Are alliances between groups on the British left and Islamists common?
I think Hamas and Hezbollah have got more powerful allies than the Socialist Workers Party. But there is certainly a political perspective there – and the SWP sees Hamas as advancing the cause of anti-imperialism, which takes us back to this idea of the “anti-imperialism of fools”, whereby any kind of anti-imperialism becomes necessarily progressive. The left needs to get away from this binary logic – and stop supporting groups that are actually antithetical to an emancipatory politics based on equality.

As a Jew and a Labour Party member: Do you feel as though the party’s problem with antisemitism has improved since Keir Starmer has taken over as leader?
The short answer is no.

And the long answer?
Now that the centre-right has regained control of the party, I don’t think that it is going to make great progress with tackling antisemitism because they’re not equipped to fight it – even if they do want to. So far, they have merely dealt with the problem in an exclusively bureaucratic and administrative manner. There has been some antisemitism awareness training, which is pretty shallow and superficial. Even under Corbyn, the party produced a pamphlet entitled “No Place For Antisemitism” which was actually quite good, but it was hardly discussed and was then buried on some corner of the party website. So far, there hasn’t been a consistent drive to launch a programme of political education at a local level. Deputy leader Angela Rayner said at the party conference last November, the party is prepares to expel thousands and thousands of people if it needs to. But this isn’t an issue you can solve by just getting rid of people. It’s an ideological problem – that needs to be confronted at the ideological level. We need a consistent approach -and that means regular reading groups, workshops and discussions. There’s no shortcut.

Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists
By Daniel Randall
No Pasaran! Media (London)
265 pages
ISBN: 978-1913532581

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