Cohen on left anti-Semitism

There’s a long essay by Nick Cohen in the current New Statesman about his experiences of what he calls anti-Semitism on the left since the run-up to the Iraq war. His interest was piqued by a series of incidents in which people with opinions their opponents didn’t like were mistaken for Jews and this was thought to be the source of their opinions.

Cohen notes that, after watching “the great anti-war demonstration of 2003”, he sat down and wrote for the Observer that “the march organisers represented a merger of far left and far right: Islamic fundamentalists shoulder to shoulder with George Galloway, the Socialist Workers’ Party and every other creepy admirer of totalitarianism this side of North Korea”. He suggested that “if you’re going to advocate a policy that would keep a fascist dictator in power”, i.e. by opposing the war, “you should at least talk to his victims, whose number included socialists, communists and liberals - good people, rather like you”.

After writing this, he said that he received a number of responses from people who assumed he was Jewish because his name is Cohen. Well, it’s a fairly reasonable assumption; they would not have made the same assumption if his name had been Smith. He puts it down to his pointing out “liberal betrayals”:

There had to be a malign motive. You had to support Ariel Sharon. You had to be in the pay of “international” media moguls or neoconservatives. You had to have bad blood. You had to be a Jew.

In my estimation, most of the “flood of anti-Semitism that hit him” didn’t come from liberals or anyone else concerned about a “betrayal of liberal ideas”. I’ll leave the reader to guess who would jump to such conclusions. Of course, none of the well-known “international” media moguls are Jewish, although most of the well-known neo-conservative ideologues are (not that all, or indeed most, Jews are neo-cons). Reading over one of his articles from that period, his dissection of the splits in the far-left sects involved in the Respect coalition are among the more coherent of the articles issued by the pro-war left. As for people assuming that he was Jewish despite the fact that there had been no Jew in his family for a century, well, pardon me for making the same assumption. If his name had been Smith or Jones I wouldn’t have thought he was Jewish, whatever his ideas.

In between the first two columns of the article is a library picture consisting of women - judging by the obvious headscarf worn by the one on the right, I’d say they were Palestinians or other Arabs - with a banner containing a star of David (peace be upon him), an arrow, and a swastika (along with several small pictures of Shaikh Ahmed Yassin). The caption says:

Wrong equation: by subscribing to the idea that “Jew” equals “fascist”, the left has forgotten its history and lost its way

But nowhere in the article is it specifically mentioned that the left has a habit of calling Israelis fascists, and the people in the picture are obviously not westerners of any political persuasion. They are Arab Muslim women. The equation of Israel with Nazism is to taunt them about their recent experience of persecution, and that they themselves have now become oppressors. The question must be posed why the picture was used at all, given its total irrelevance. It looks like yet another example of the “irrelevancy shoe-horned into the story for effect” phenomenon that we’ve seen so much in the press since July.

Cohen reports that a number of left-wingers and centrists turned out not to be so moderate when the chips were down. “I experienced what many blacks and Asians had told me: you can never tell. Where people stand on the political spectrum says nothing about their visceral beliefs.” One “leading figure on the left” asked Cohen to put him in touch with members of the new government, and at their next meeting said, “I knew it! I knew it! They want to recognise Israel”. “One minute I would be talking to a BBC reporter or liberal academic and think him a civilised man; the next, he would be screaming about the Jews.” The Guardian held a web debate on the topic of whether Cohen and David Aaronovitch were “enough to make a good man anti-Semitic” - so far, so bad, if what Cohen tells us is entirely accurate.

He also offers the example of Tam Dalyell’s ill-informed comments last year, claiming that he “explained British foreign policy as a Jewish conspiracy”. He actually did not use the word conspiracy, talking of a “cabal of Jewish advisers”, naming three people in Blair’s entourage, two of whom were Jewish only by ancestry. His actual focus was on Jewish pressure on Bush to step up hostility to a traditional enemy of Israel, namely Syria. Even the president of the Zionist Federation, Professor Eric Moonman, said he did not believe Dalyell to be an anti-Semite after that incident.

Even so, I think Dalyell’s words would not have caused such outrage had they been directed at any other ethnic group. I’ve heard a caller to Vanessa Feltz’s morning show on BBC London allege that we are being ruled by Scots or some sort of “Celtic conspiracy”, with no great controversy; if they had said similar things about Jews, they’d have been cut off. He then trots out the Ken-and-Yusuf story, ignoring the fact that Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi had come to defend the rights of Muslim girls to an education. He wasn’t here to bash Jews or to advocate stoning or hand-cutting.

Cohen then criticises the “inconsistency” of criticising Israel’s human rights record while supposedly ignoring those of “much worse societies” like Syria. In fact, Syria’s problems are of a classic dictatorship and criticisms of the Syrian state are for crimes against its own people. It’s not about a people dispossessed by a foreign invader. Israeli state crimes are seen to be higher in quantity because more reports get out due to Israel being an open society; but does anyone really imagine that those of North Korea are less? Israel, being an offshoot of western society with similar institutions, is held to the same standards as western society, while dictatorships are not expected to respect people’s rights.

He then quotes an article by David Hirsh, editor of Engage Online (which seems to have had its former home here) and sociology lecturer at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, as writing that “the act of singling out Israel as the only illegitimate state – in the absense of any coherent reason for doing this – is in itself antisemitic, irrespective of the motivation or opinions of those who make that claim”; in the same paragraph, something Cohen didn’t mention, he also said that anti-Zionists are not necessarily racists or antisemites, rather that they espouse an effectively anti-Semitic position, and the article is part of a wider debate about anti-Zionist activism on the British academic left and its connections with people with genuinely anti-Semitic views. The most vociferous opponents of Israel are of course Muslims and particularly Arabs, who oppose its presence not because they hate Jews, but because it’s the result of an invasion of what was long held to be Arab, Muslim land. To any Arab alive before that period, it was unimaginable that the land should be controlled by other than its inhabitants. I’m sure most Arabs wouldn’t have begrudged the Jews a land of their own; it’s just that they did not want to be forced off their lands to make way for it.

Cohen explains early anti-Semitism as “a conspiratorial explanation of power from the radical right”, inspired by the revolutions in France and the expulsion of the British from the USA:

How could Americans proclaim such insane ideas as the rights of man, the counter-revolutionaries asked. How could the French overthrow the king who loved them and Holy Mother Church which succoured them? They couldn’t admit that the Americans and the French wanted to do what they had done. Their consent had to have been manufactured by the new rulers of the world. Originally these were the Freemasons, who were damned for peddling enlightened ideas. Only after Jewish emancipation opened the ghettos were the Jews press-ganged into the plot. They represented everything that was hateful about modernity: equal rights, religious toleration and the destruction of tradition.

He contrasts this with “standard racism, which is generally resentment of powerless outsiders who look odd, lower wages and take jobs”, without mentioning that it is usually the poorest sections of society which is most prone to this kind of sentiment, and the “powerless outsiders” lower wages because their living expenses are lower. I’d dispute that this is racism at all, in fact; it’s a normal reaction by vulnerable people to new competition for their livelihoods. Today, the conspiratorial view of Jews has penetrated into Muslim society, “everywhere from Malaysia to Morocco, and it has arrived here”. As one of the battier examples, he quotes the Hamas charter:

“They were behind the French revolution, the communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests.” That’s right, Rotary Clubs.

I should add that suspicion of “establishment clubs” of all sorts is widespread among Muslims, some of which (as Cohen has written of in the past) is plain silly, such as the tape in which the Eagles’ song Hotel California was played backwards to reveal supposed supplications to Satan. I don’t share a lot of these ideas myself; the Rotarians and Lions appear to consist of businessmen who want to contribute to society. On the other hand, Freemasons are the subject of much suspicion even here, particularly when they occupy positions of power such as in the judiciary.

Cohen repeats the claim made in Paul Berman’s recent book Terror and Liberalism (of which he wrote an appreciation here) that “militant Muslims have bought the ideology of the European counter-revolution wholesale”:

The appeal is understandable. There is a chosen people: the Germans, the Italians or the Spanish in classic fascism; Sunni Muslims in totalitarian variants of Islam. Domination is theirs by right, but they are denied their inheritance by a conspiracy of infidels, be they westernisers, Jews, sell-out leaders or the corrupters of women and youth.
But there, the similarities between fascism and Qutbian Islamism seem to end, as even Paul Berman concedes:

What would it mean to resurrect the pristine Islamic state? It would mean reinstating the code of shari’ah, the Muslim code, as the legal code of the state. And what would shariah mean, not in the context of the seventh century but in modern times? Here, Qutb was wonderfully clever. He arrived at his social criticisms by taking a good portion of modern Western social commentary and pouring it through an Islamic filter; and he arrived at his vision of shariah by taking a good portion of Islam and pouring it through a filter of modern liberalism. Shariah, in his account, emerged as the legal code for a faintly liberal or even libertarian society, with an Islamic twist - the kind of society that any thoughtful modern person, influenced by the ideals of liberal freedom, might respect and even crave. (Berman, Terror and Liberalism, Norton, New York, 2004 paperback edition, p95).

As an example of the pan-Islamic anti-Semitism arriving here, he offers the example of Ahmad Thomson, reported in the Telegraph to advise the Prime Minister “on community relations of all things”, despite having similar conspiratorial views to those Cohen mentions. Thomson’s attitudes are all a matter of public record and, along with the well-known activities of the Murabitun group to which he belongs, are well-known and controversial within the Muslim community. A distinctive aspect of the group is an interest in German philosophers like Heidegger and Nietzsche, who hold no interest for the majority of Muslims with whom the group has been in conflict in the past (as in a notorious incident in Norwich in 1996); I’ve written about them here on two occasions in the past ([1], [2]). Thomson is not in my estimation a suitable representative for the community, but like al-Qaradawi, he may have something worthwhile to offer due to his legal expertise.

Cohen’s conclusion seems to be that the left is in decay; while, in the past, “the left, for all its crimes, was against fascism”, its present status, including its opposition to the recent Iraqi campaign, reflects a dissolution brought by defeat; the working class and “peasants” who used to flock to the left now increasingly favour religious fundamentalism. I would counter that you can’t entirely separate opposition to the war with the occasional flare-ups of hostility to Jews; people opposed the war for perfectly sincere reasons (some moral, some strategic) and not because they wanted to abandon Iraqis to the “mercies” of Saddam and the gang. And by the way, the communists and non-creepy far-leftists Cohen managed to debate with perhaps envisaged that people of their liking might get a chance at power, and some of them have tried their own hand at front-group politics in the past (I witnessed it in the NUS in the mid-1990s).

I’m not writing this to condone racism or to explain away the weird ideas some Muslims espouse, but Cohen clearly intends to demonise opponents to the Iraq war by tarring them with the same brush as racists and anti-Semites. Distrust of a war driven by the far right of American politics is not a symptom of having “been maddened by the direction history has taken”; it’s a highly principled stance. I’m not saying you can’t be a principled supporter of the war as well, as long as your principles are still there when you discuss the issue with those of a different view.

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