The European left and its trouble with Jews
By Professor Colin Shindler
Last week, Twitter shut down a popular account for posting antisemitic messages in France. This came soon after the firing of blanks at a synagogue near Paris, the discovery of a network of radical Islamists who had thrown a hand grenade into a kosher restaurant, and the killing of a teacher and young pupils at a Jewish school in Strasbourg earlier this year. The attacks were part of an escalating campaign of violence against Jews in France.
Today, a sizable section of the European left has been reluctant to take a clear stand when anti-Zionism spills over into antisemitism. Beginning in the 1990s, many on the European left began to view the growing Muslim minorities in their countries as a new proletariat and the Palestinian cause as a recruiting mechanism. The issue of Palestine was particularly seductive for the children of immigrants, marooned between identities.
Capitalism was depicted as undermining a perfect Islamic society while cultural imperialism corrupted Islam. The tactic has a distinguished revolutionary pedigree. Indeed, the cry, “Long live Soviet power, long live the Shariah,” was heard in Central Asia during the 1920s after Lenin tried to cultivate Muslim nationalists in the Soviet East once his attempt to spread revolution to Europe had failed. But the question remains: why do today’s European socialists identify with Islamists whose worldview is light-years removed from their own?
In recent years, there has been an increased blurring of the distinction between Jew, Zionist and Israeli. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant group Hezbollah, famously commented: “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice I do not say the Israeli.”
Whereas historically Islam has often been benevolent toward Jews, compared to Christianity, many contemporary Islamists have evoked the idea of “the eternal Jew.” For example, the Battle of Khaybar in 629, fought by the Prophet Muhammad against the Jewish tribes, is recalled in victory chants at Hezbollah rallies: “Khaybar, Khaybar, O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return,” and the name Khaybar sometimes graces Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel.
Many contemporary Islamists see little difference between the Jewish opponents of the prophet in seventh-century Arabia and Jews today. Importing old symbols of European antisemitism - depictions of Jews as enemies of God or proclamations of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy - has helped cement such imagery. If there is a distinction between Islamic anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism, it has been lost on French Islamists.
The fear of Jewish domination of the Middle East has become a repetitive theme in the Islamist media - which has become more influential as religious parties have gained ground in the wake of the Arab Spring. This is a factor in the general refusal of the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas to publicly meet members of the Israeli peace camp - a far cry from when Palestinian nationalists willingly negotiated with dovish Israelis before the 1993 handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn.
The old left in Europe was forged in the struggle against local fascists in the 1930s. Most of Europe experienced a brutal Nazi occupation and bore witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. The European left strongly identified with Jewish suffering and therefore welcomed the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. Some viewed the struggle for Israel in the same light as the fight for freedom in the Spanish Civil War.
But the succeeding generation of the European left did not see things this way. Its frame of reference was the anticolonial struggle - in Vietnam, South Africa, Rhodesia and a host of other places. Its hallowed icon was not the soldier of the International Brigades who fought against Franco in Spain, but Che Guevara - whose image adorned countless student bedrooms. Anticolonialism further influenced myriad causes, from America’s Black Panthers in the 1960s to Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela today.
It began with Israel’s exclusion from the ranks of the nonaligned nations more than 50 years ago, when Arab states refused to attend a 1955 nonaligned conference in Indonesia if an Israeli delegate was present. The Jewish state was snubbed in favor of such feudal kingdoms as Saudi Arabia, Libya and Yemen. And Israel’s collusion with imperial powers like Britain and France during the Suez crisis the following year cemented its ostracism.
Given the deep remorse for the misdeeds of colonialism, it was easier for the New Left of the 1960s to identify with the emerging Palestinian national movement than with the already established social democratic Israel. This deepening hostility toward Israel was present in Europe before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and before the rush to build settlements on the West Bank.
AMID this rising hostility toward Israel, the French philosopher and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre advocated a different way forward. He was scarred by the memory of what had happened to France’s Jews during World War II — the discrimination, betrayals, deportations and exterminations. He understood the legitimacy of Israel’s war for independence and later commented that the establishment of the state of Israel was one of the few events “that allows us to preserve hope.” Yet Sartre also strongly supported Algeria’s fight for independence from France.
This double legacy of supporting Israel and the Algerian struggle symbolized the predicament of the entire postwar European left. Sartre argued that the left shouldn’t choose between two moral causes and that it was up to the Jews and the Arabs to resolve their conflict through discussion and negotiation. Sartre tried to create a space for a dialogue, lending his name and prestige to private and public meetings between the two sides such as the Comité Israël-Palestine in the 1970s. His approach reached its apogee with the many quiet meetings between Israelis and Palestinians in Europe that eventually led to the Oslo accords. But Sartre’s vision was stymied as Israeli settlements proliferated after 1977, strengthening the left’s caricature of Israel as an imperialist power and a settler-colonial enterprise. Some prominent voices on the European left have mouthed time-honored antisemitic tropes in their desire to appear supportive of the Palestinian cause. Ken Livingstone, a former newspaper editor and mayor of London, has a long history of insensitive remarks about Jews — from publishing a cartoon in 1982 of Menachem Begin, then Israel’s prime minister, in Gestapo uniform atop a pile of Palestinian skulls to likening a known Jewish reporter to “a concentration camp guard” 20 years later. Today, he contributes to Press TV, the English-language outlet for the Iranian government.
Sometimes the left distinguishes between vulnerable European Jews who have been persecuted and latter-day “Prussians” in Israel. Yet it is often forgotten that a majority of Israelis just happen to be Jews, who fear therefore that what begins with the delegitimization of the state will end with the delegitimization of the people.
Such Israelophobia, enunciated by sections of the European left, dovetailed neatly with the rise of Islamism among Palestinians and throughout the Arab world. The Islamist obfuscation of “the Jew” mirrored the blindness of many a European Marxist. Despite the well-intentioned efforts of many Jews and Muslims to put aside their differing perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the offensive imagery of “the Jew” has persisted in many immigrant communities in Western Europe. Islamists were willing to share platforms with socialists and atheists, but not with Zionists.
The New Left’s profound opposition to American power, and the convergence of reactionary Islamists and unquestioning leftists was reflected in the million-strong London protest against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was organized by the Muslim Association of Britain, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain. When some Muslims voiced apprehension about participating in the protest with non-Muslims, the M.A.B. leadership decreed that it was religiously permissible if halal food was provided and men and women were given separate areas. Such displays of “reactionary clericalism,” as the early Bolsheviks would have called it, were happily glossed over.
Sartre understood that the conflict was not simply between Israelis and Palestinians, but between those advocating peace on both sides and their rejectionists. This conflict within the conflict is something that many on Europe’s left, as they ally themselves with unsavory forces, still fail to comprehend.
Instead, the swallowing up of both the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps by political polarization has accelerated the closing of the progressive mind. And static fatalism has allowed the assailant of synagogue congregants and the killer of young children to fill the vacuum.
An emeritus professor at the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies and the author of “Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimization.”