Forty years on, I have to say that the classical Marxist Left whose ideology and politics I studied during the early 1970s seems to me to belong to a very different political universe from the pro-Palestinian leftism of our own time. True, there are a number of theoretical continuities between today and the anti-Zionism of prewar European Social Democrats like Karl Kautsky or Otto Bauer. There is even a connection between the hostility to the “separatist” Jewish labor movement exhibited by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, and the ideological negation of Israel on the contemporary Marxist Left. Outwardly at least, there is also a common language of socialist “internationalism” that still animates the radical anti-Zionist discourse.
Yet even in the mid-1970s, when I became more directly involved in debates on British campuses with pro-Palestinian leftists, there was a sharp edge to anti-Israel sentiment which went beyond theory. Though I well understood Palestinian resentment toward Israel, it was more difficult to comprehend why so many on the new Left had turned against the Jewish state with such vehemence. The “progressive” take on the Middle East stuck me as extraordinarily simplistic – dividing the conflict into “good” and “bad” guys, the “oppressive” Israelis against the “oppressed” Palestinians.
At one level, this is less surprising when one recalls that much of the Western Left (especially the Communists) had for decades applauded “revolutionary” dictators like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Colonel Khaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Castro. Today, it still remains either supportive, indifferent, or silent about populist dictators like Ahmadinejad, Mugabe, or Chávez while rallying its militants on behalf of Hizbullah and Hamas. At the same time, the anti-Zionist Left systematically demonizes Israel—which in terms of its civil society, democratic norms, freedom of criticism and rule of law is light years ahead of the Arab world.
One might well ask if this is not an “anticolonialism” of frauds and fools. Can we seriously imagine Marx, Engels, Kautsky, or Rosa Luxemburg remaining silent about the advocacy of sharia law, censorship, female genital mutilation, honor killings, suicide bombings, or making the world safe for Allah’s rule? Can we conceive of any circumstances in which they would have envisaged an alliance with Sheikh al-Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood – along the lines of British leftists like Ken Livingstone or George Galloway? The question almost answers itself.
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In my book I have tried to explain what went wrong with the Left while suggesting that the degeneration was already prefigured in the 19th-century seedbed of anti-Semitic socialism. A poisonous anti-Jewish legacy can be found in Marx, Fourier, and Proudhon, extending through the orthodox Communists and “non-conformist” Trotskyists to the Islamo-Leftist hybrids of today who systematically vilify the so-called racist essence of the Jewish state.
From Karl Marx to Sheikh al-Qaradawi, via Ken Livingstone (former leftist Mayor of London), it would appear that the Jews (whoops, sorry, the “Zionists”) are always “guilty” of something bad. It is also worth noting that this is a language that neither the radical Right nor the Nazis and the Islamofascists have any pangs of conscience in warmly embracing. European fascists, no less than leftists, regularly identified the Jews with capitalism and western imperialism.
Today, rather than denouncing the “Jewish-Bolshevik” alliance (as Hitler and the prewar fascists continually did), the extreme Right focuses on attacking the “American-Zionist axis.” This is the consensual point where it meets with the “anti-Zionist” Left and the Islamists; where neo-Marxists or liberal “progressives” find common cause with Islamic revolutionists. This is the place where “Islamofascism” merges with “Islamo-Marxism” in an empty “progressivism” without progress, driven by a convulsive hatred of Western modernity, of Jews, of bourgeois liberalism.
But why are Jews still the scapegoats at the heart of this jihad? Why does a whole section of the Left – which has almost abandoned Marx (except for his “Jewish” anti-Semitism) – flirt with a counter-Enlightenment so fundamentally alien to its self-proclaimed core value of human emancipation? I can still remember young French students chanting “We are all German Jews” in the streets of Paris in May 1968, their way of protesting against the Gaullists, the Communists, and police brutality.
Today, such a march in the streets of Europe would be more likely to echo to calls of “Death to Israel,” “End the Holocaust in Gaza,” or “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas!” In such demonstrations, radical leftists frequently join hands with pro-Palestinian jihadists in their relentless campaign to defame, delegitimize and ultimately to destroy the Jewish state of Israel.
About the Author: Robert S. Wistrich is Neuberger professor of European and Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. This essay was adapted from his new book, “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel” (University of Nebraska Press).
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