Dissent: Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn

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[from Dissent (Fall 2007)]

By Mitchell Cohen

A DETERMINED offensive is underway. Its target is in the Middle East, and it is an old target: the legitimacy of Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas are not the protagonists, the contested terrains are not the Galilee and southern Lebanon or southern Israel and Gaza. The means are not military. The offensive comes from within parts of the liberal and left intelligentsia in the United States and Europe. It has nothing to do with this or that negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, and it has nothing to do with any particular Israeli policy. After all, this or that Israeli policy may be chastised, rightly or wrongly, without denying the legitimacy of the Jewish state, just as you can criticize an Israeli policy—again, rightly or wrongly—without being an anti-Semite. You can oppose all Israeli settlements in the occupied territories (as I do) and you can also recognize that Benjamin Netanyahu, not just Yasir Arafat, was responsible for undermining the Oslo peace process without being an anti-Semite or anti-Zionist. You don’t have to be an anti-Semite or anti-Zionist to think that some American Jewish organizations pander to American or Israeli right-wingers.

The assault today is another matter. It is shaped largely by political attitudes and arguments that recall the worst of the twentieth-century left. It is time to get beyond them. But let me be clear: I am “left.” I still have no problem when someone describes me with the “s” word—socialist—although I don’t much care if you call me a social democrat, left-liberal, or some other proximate term. My “leftism” comes from a commitment to—and an ethos of—democratic humanism and social egalitarianism.

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I originally intended to not comment on this article but so many friends have emailed it to me and it is posted at more than a few blogs I frequent so I thought I’d add my two cents.

My first comment is where has Professor Cohen been the past six years (or more)? Writing about anti-Semitism on the left is all well and good but to feign surprise or pretend that this is some sort of recent phenomena is more than a little naïve. I’m making a wild assumption, but given his academic reputation I suspect Mr. Cohen is a bit older than I. He may have even experienced the wild and wooly days of the 1960s-1970s New Left firsthand. In any case, he is old enough to know that this stuff–this anti-Semitism–is nothing new. I’d argue it goes all the way back to the founding fathers of socialism: Marx, Proudhon and Bakunin but it certainly was evident in the rhetoric of the radical leftists back in the 1960s and 1970s as well. Unfortunately people who should have known better and spoken up (especially Jews) refused to do so.

Reading an article like this in Dissent in the days, weeks, even months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 would have been most welcome by this blogger. At that time I was shocked by the amount of anti-Semitic vitriol that flooded left-wing websites. In the vast majority of cases the bigots cloaked their hate in the language of anti-Zionism but it was pretty obvious to me: the left, even the libertarian left—my left—held some pretty ugly ideas about Jews and Zionists. It was around this time that I began to seriously reconsider my politics and start my move towards the center.

My second comment concerns the notion that “the left” has been hijacked by nefarious forces and “real leftists” need to reclaim it. I think it is a bit late at this point. Back in my anarchist days we faced the same problem, how to revive a historical legacy that we felt had great relevancy to the present but, at the same time, get people to abandon their notions of anarchism as being equivalent to disorder, chaos and random violence. Anarchists in the United States faced another problem, their ideas and programs were simply not popular with their sons and daughters. This is the case with socialists as well. Most people in the United States do not differentiate democratic socialism from totalitarian communism and it is incredibly difficult to convince most Americans otherwise. The sons and daughters of previous socialist movements (and moments) did not go on to be socialists themselves.

The question is why?

One answer is a shift in class composition. Historically, most anarchists in the United States were of working-class immigrant backgrounds. Paul Avrich’s Anarchist Voices does an excellent job describing these various immigrant anarchist milieus. In the U.S. today, most anarchists come from middle-class backgrounds and are not immigrants. I include left-anarchists in this assessment. In the 19th century, anarchists and anarchism used to be a presence in the organizations, debates, and actions of the working-class. That is not the case today.

Another part of this story is the degree of success immigrants could achieve in the U.S. I once heard Avrich say that the success of the American dream meant the end of anarchism or something along those lines. His basic argument was as the sons and daughters of these anarchists were able to go to college, get good jobs, and achieve success through the capitalist system, anarchism had less appeal to them than it had to their radical parents and grandparents. This was the case with most radical groups in the United States.

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: The “New McCarthyism” « The New Centrist

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