First published here
I think it is politically important that so many on the Left are taking seriously the expressions of anti-Semitism that have become widespread among groups that regard themselves as anti-imperialist. Perhaps it can also lead to some long overdue theoretical clarification. At issue is not whether or not Israeli policies can be criticized. Israeli policies should be criticized, especially those aimed at undermining any possibility of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. However, the critique of “Zionism” prevalent in many anti-imperialist circles goes beyond a critique of Israeli policies. It attributes to Israel and the “Zionists” a unique malevolence and global conspiratorial power. Israel is not criticized as other countries are criticized – but as the embodiment of that which is deeply and fundamentally evil. In short, the representation of Israel and the “Zionists” in this form of “anti-imperialist” “anti-Zionism” is essentially the same as that of the Jews in the virulent anti-Semitism that found its purest expression in Nazism. In both cases, the “solution” is the same – elimination in the name of emancipation.
The conventional Stalinist and Social Democratic representation of Nazism and fascism as simply tools of the capitalist class, used to crush working class organizations, always omitted one of their central dimensions: These movements, in terms of their own self-understanding and their mass appeal, were revolts. Nazism presented itself as a struggle for liberation (and supported “anti-imperialist” movements in the Arab world and India). The basis for this self-understanding was a fetishized understanding of capitalism: the abstract, intangible, global domination of capital was understood as the abstract, intangible global domination of the Jews. Far from simply being an attack on a minority, Nazis anti-Semitism understood itself as anti-hegemonic. Its aim was to free humanity from the ruthless ubiquitous domination of the Jews. It is because of its anti-hegemonic character that anti-Semitism poses a particular problem for the Left. It is the reason why, a century ago, anti-Semitism could be characterized as the “socialism of fools.” Today it can be characterized as the “anti-imperialism of fools.”
This anti-Semitic form of “anti-Zionism” is, unfortunately, not new. It was at the center of the Stalinist show trials of the early 1950s, especially in Czechoslovakia, when internationalist Communists, many of whom were Jews, were accused of being “Zionist agents” and shot. This coded form of anti-Semitism, whose origins had nothing to do with struggles in the Middle East, was then transported there by the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War – especially by the intelligence services of the DDR working with their Western and Middle Eastern clients (e.g. the RAF and various “radical” Palestinian groups).
This form of “leftist” anti-Zionism has converged with radical Arab nationalism and radical Islamism – which are no more progressive than any other form of radical nationalism, such as radical Albanian or Croatian nationalism, and for whom the eliminationist impulse towards Jews in Israel is justified as being directed against “European” colonizers. Whenever the eliminationist impulse towards Jews in Israel is strongest, the legitimacy of Israel is called into question most – with arguments ranging from the claim that most European Jews are not biologically Middle Eastern (a claim made in 1947 by the Arab Higher Committee and now recycled as a “new discovery” by Shlomo Sand) to the idea that they are simply European colonizers who, like the pied noir, should be sent home. It is unfortunate, if not surprising, that radical nationalists in the Middle East view the situation in these terms. It becomes perverse, however, when Europeans – especially Germans – identify the Jews, the group most persecuted and massacred by Europeans for a millennium, with those very Europeans. By identifying the Jews with their own murderous past, those Europeans can slip out of dealing with that burdensome legacy. The result is a mode that purports to fight the past, but actually continues and extends it.
This form of anti-Zionism is part of a campaign, gathering strength since the beginning of the second Intifada, to eliminate Israel. Its focus on the weakness of the Palestinians veils that ultimate intent. This form of anti-Zionism is part of the problem, not a part of the solution. Far from being progressive, it allies itself with radical Arab nationalists and Islamists, that is, with the radical Right in the Middle East, and, in so doing, strengthens the Israeli Right. It is constitutive of a war increasingly defined in zero-sum terms, which undermines any possible political solution, a recipe for an endless war. The hatred expressed by this anti-Zionism explodes the limits of politics, for it is as boundless as its imagined object. Such boundlessness points to the dream of elimination. The Germans, along with many other Europeans, know this eliminationist dream only too well. It is time finally to wake up.
(Address to the Demonstration against Antisemitism 13/12/09)