On September 5, 2012, at the Democratic National Convention, chairman Antonio Villaraigosa asked those assembled if they approved of an amendment to the Democratic Party’s platform affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Half the crowd – if not more – cried “No!”
This reaction surprised many American Jews. But, as Stephen Norwood documents in his new book, Antisemitism and the American Far Left (Cambridge University Press), antipathy toward Jews and Zionism on the political left has a long history, dating back more than a century.
Norwood, a professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Oklahoma, recently spoke to The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: Why is there so much anti-Semitic or anti-Israel sentiment on the far left?
Norwood: There’s a long tradition of it going back to the middle of the 19th century. The far left has tended to deny the legitimacy of Jews’ claims to be a people. Oddly, a lot of the far-left outlook closely resembles traditional Christian theological anti-Semitism in the sense that Jews are perceived as an archaic group rigidly adhering to an outmoded sterile religion, speaking languages that are obsolete.
There’s also the issue of accusing the Jews of being excessively materialistic and exploitative of non-Jews. You see a lot of that in far-left propaganda – that the Jews are overwhelmingly concentrated in the petty bourgeoisie, which in itself is an archaic class form, and thrives on tricking people and squeezing money out of them through illicit methods of trade.
If you look at the Christian Bible, you see a very similar type of outlook. And this Christian theological anti-Semitism is so deeply embedded in Western culture that the far left has really never escaped its influence.
Nowadays, the far left often portrays Israel as the aggressor in its fight with Arab terrorism. You write in your book, though, that this practice hails all the way back to the 1929 Hebron massacre, which American communists apparently supported.
Yes, the Communist Party endorsed the pogroms. The Daily Worker, which was the Communist Party newspaper in the United States, not only endorsed them but printed cartoons that reflected Christian theological anti-Semitism stereotypes of Jews – like a cross in the background with bodies of Arabs hanging and a fat, smiling capitalist in the foreground labeled “Zionist.”
The Morgen Freiheit, which was the Yiddish-language communist newspaper in the United States, initially reacted by calling the attacks “pogroms,” but because the Soviets ordered the communist parties to view them as progressive anti-colonial revolts, it switched.
The Daily Worker, though, right off the bat, viewed them as a revolutionary Arab uprising against Zionist exploiters. The Jews were labeled bourgeois imperialists and tools of British imperialism.
Despite the Soviet Union’s anti-Semitism, Joseph Stalin amazingly supported the creation of the state of Israel. Why?
That was during a brief period running from ‘45 or ‘46 up through the end of ‘48 when the Soviet Union supported the partition plan in the United Nations. Their support was critical because they brought the Soviet bloc in with them, and it helped achieve the vote total needed for the General Assembly to pass the partition resolution.
The reason for this is that the Soviets were intent on pushing the British out of the Middle East and they thought this was the best way to do it. They continued to ban Zionism within the Soviet Union, but they supported the partition plan. In ‘47 and ‘48, they came out openly for it and were even more supportive than the United States, which was equivocating. In fact, the most sympathetic presidential candidate to Israel in the ‘48 election campaign was Henry Wallace, who was the Progressive Party candidate – and the Progressive Party was highly influenced by the communists.
You write that Wallace even criticized Harry Truman for his Middle East stance, claiming that he “talks Jewish and acts Arab.”
Truman didn’t support de jure recognition, only de facto recognition. He also imposed an arms embargo, so Americans could get arrested for running guns to the Haganah or Irgun. So Truman was kind of equivocating….
In 1947, the Haganah had almost no weaponry to speak of – no heavy artillery, no heavy machine guns, and so on. The armaments they acquired came – with Soviet approval – from Czechoslovakia. These were obsolete weapons that the Haganah had to pay a good deal for, but nonetheless they were helpful.
In fact, many Jewish pilots, veterans of World War II from around the world, went to Czechoslovakia for flight training since Israel had no air force to speak of. English was the major language within the Israeli air core in ‘48 for this reason, since these pilots were largely from America and British Commonwealth countries.
You also write interestingly that American communists aggressively protested anti-Semitism in the United States after World War II – almost at the same time that Stalin was embarking on an aggressive campaign against Jews in the Soviet Union. How do you explain that?
The communists after World Ward II believed that a fascist takeover was imminent [in America]. This was what they called the “five minutes to midnight line,” and they felt they would have to go underground. They also believed that anti-Semitism was a feature of a new fascism and that they had to combat it.
So when this film “Oliver Twist” was released in the British zone of occupation in Germany in 1948, the communists protested vehemently and even aggressively demonstrated at theaters where it was being shown, saying that it was offensive to Jews. They also denounced the U.S. government for being too slow in moving Jews out of the DP camps, many of which were former Nazi concentration camps where they were held behind barbed wire. And they also picketed the movie “The Desert Fox” in 1951, which they saw as glorifying the Nazi general Rommel. They took the lead in some places in doing that.
At the same time, they claimed there was no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union had made it illegal, as if that were the end of the discussion. They also pointed out that the Soviets had established an autonomous Jewish region, Birobidzhan, which they claimed was a bountiful area where Jews could thrive when, in fact, Birobidzhan was this remote, swampy, heavily-forested area off on the border of Manchuria that never amounted to anything.
In 1958, in an interview with a Paris newspaper, Khrushchev finally admitted that Birobidzhan had not been a success but that was because – he said – the Jews were unable to organize themselves collectively. They were too strongly individualistic to live in a functioning society together, and besides, they were too intellectually oriented. They argue too much, and so on.
You write a lot in the book about anti-Zionism on the American left over the last 50 years or so. Why is there so much more anti-Zionism on the political left than on the political right?
That’s a very good question because it used to be the reverse. When I was growing up, it tended to be liberal Democrats who were more sympathetic to Israel, not conservative Republicans. As late as 1968, the major liberal Democrats – Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey – were all very staunchly pro-Israel.
The whole civil rights leadership was also strongly supportive of Israel: Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin – all solid supporters.
All of that changes really after 1968 when liberals abandon Israel. To some degree, it’s the influence of Black Nationalism that was always hostile to Israel. The black nationalists didn’t want any coalition with whites – “You can’t trust whites” – and a way of expressing that view was to say: “The Jews” – whom everyone knew were among those most solidly behind civil rights – “are no different than other whites, or they’re even worse and more racist than other whites.”
And so, that outlook penetrates into the mainstream – that race is everything and people who are non-white are progressives. And somehow, the Arabs are seen as non-whites and the Israelis as white even though half of Israel’s population comes from Africa and Asia.
It’s not like Arabs are black, either.
No, they’re not. And on top of that… when Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther leader, went to Algeria, he became very disillusioned, and his views changed radically when he saw a slave market in an Arab country where blacks were being sold as slaves. This goes on in Mauritania, in the Sudan – it’s well documented. Everyone knows that black people are enslaved by Arabs and bought and sold as if they’re animals. The Simon Wiesenthal Center had a big symposium on this [in 1999] at which black people who had been slaves testified about their experiences. It’s a scandal that this is going on and that people aren’t paying very much attention to it.
Israel, in the meantime, has airlifted a significant population of dark-skinned Jews out of Ethiopia. In fact, I think Israel is the only country in the world that has brought black people out of Africa other than as slaves.
Ignorance is one of the big problems here. The propagandists present everything in very simplistic terms: that Arabs are non-whites, that’s good, and Israelis are whites, that’s bad. But it’s mystifying to me because Israeli society is very committed to principles that you would think liberals would admire: like egalitarianism, providing services to people, being committed to civil liberties, etc. That’s not the case anywhere else in the Middle East.
So I’m at a loss to understand why liberals have abandoned the state of Israel. But they have.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).
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