This post defends the legitimacy of left antisemitism. It starts with a disclaimer on terminology, and then considers the general grounds for the legitimacy of antisemitism. It then defines and explains modern antisemitism, and specifically left antisemitism, by starting with the values and beliefs of Jews themselves. A separate post considers anti-semitism in centre-left parties in western Europe. The post was inspired by continuing controversy in the UK Labour Party on antisemitism, and relates to an earlier post on the new ‘Jewish question’ in Europe.
The post is written from a western European perspective, and for legal reasons, any proposals are intended to apply solely inside the European Union.
First, a disclaimer about the definition of Jews. In this post, ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ refer to individuals who define themselves as Jewish, and who consider themselves to belong to the Jewish people. In most cases, those individuals have some Jewish ancestry, but then millions of people in Europe have some Jewish ancestors. Here the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ exclude those who do not regard themselves as Jewish, and do not identify as members of any Jewish collectivity. Here the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ do not refer to the category of adherents of Judaism as a religion, although obviously some individuals will fall in both categories. More loosely put, this post is about ‘ethnic Jews’ who self-identify as Jews, regardless of their religion (if any). That category is politically the most relevant, because those who self-identify as Jewish, are the most likely to adopt a political position relevant to that identity.
The general legitimacy of antisemitism
Antisemitism is generally regarded as inherently wrong. The terms ‘antisemitism’ and ‘antisemitic’ were first used in the late 19th century, as a self-description by German right-wing groups. The terms were still used in a self-descriptive sense in Nazi Germany, but after 1945 they became negative, pejorative terms.
With this background, antisemitism is typically regarded as socially, morally, and politically illegitimate. It is used as a standard to judge political propositions: if a proposition is antisemitic, then it is considered wrong or illegitimate. Nevertheless, in the light of changed historical circumstances, that condemnatory position is no longer tenable. Antisemitism is now legitimate, or at least not illegitimate, for three related reasons.
First, the definition of antisemitism has broadened in the last decades. There is no official worldwide definition that everyone accepts: instead, there is a constantly shifting envelope of well-used definitions. Many are related to the State of Israel, rather than to Jews as an ethnic, religious, or cultural minority.
Two examples of recent definitional shifts are the so-called EUMC definition of antisemitism, and the ‘3D’ definition promoted by the Israeli government. The EUMC was the ‘European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’, which was later absorbed into the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). The European Union never in fact adopted an official definition of antisemitism, but the EUMC did circulate a ‘working definition’. Without any official decision on a formal version, it later simply disappeared from their website. Antisemitism in that EUMC definition includes:
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
Under this definition, anti-nationalism is antisemitic. It also contains several embedded premises, for instance that the State of Israel is a democratic nation, and that the Jewish people have a ‘right to self-determination’. (Peoples do not have such a right in international law). The EUMC working definition also implies that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is equivalent to “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”.
The 3D test of antisemitism, which was presented in 2004 by ex-Knesset member Natan Sharansky, refers to demonisation and delegitimisation of Israel, and double standards as applied to Israel. Sharansky gave few examples, but he says that delegitimisation occurs “when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied”. Again this contains an implied premise, namely that Israel has a right to exist. (Individual states do not, in fact, have existence rights).
Both the EUMC and 3D definitions go well beyond traditional definitions of antisemitism as ‘prejudice against Jews’, and as pseudo-religious myths about Jews (sacrifice of Christian children).
Many other definitions of antisemitism now circulate. Over time, the definition continually widens, but never narrows to more stringent criteria. In other words, the definition is subject to continuous inflation. So, inevitably, the definition expands to include positions or values, which are in themselves legitimate. In this way antisemitism becomes legitimate, in the sense of not being illegitimate. A dog is not a bird, but if we expand the category ‘dogs’ to include ducks, then it is no longer correct to say that dogs are not birds. If that which is legitimate is placed in the category ‘antisemitism’, then we cannot say that antisemitism is not legitimate.
The second ground for the general legitimacy of antisemitism is the fact that modern antisemitism is no longer a ‘prejudice’. Classic prejudice is the attribution of negative characteristics to members of a group, on the basis of false assumptions about the group. Modern antisemitism typically consists of the negation, rejection, or denial, of certain beliefs, values and political positions, held by all or most Jews. Antisemitism therefore includes any other belief, value or political position, which is objectively in opposition to them. The details of those positions are explained in the next section, but the relevant point is that antisemitism can originate in political difference, or divergent values, or simple moral disagreement. It does not necessarily involve malice, and it does not require a conscious decision to be antisemitic. An individual can be antisemitic without even knowing that Jews exist, for instance if that individual rejects the right of nations and peoples to self-determination. The antisemitism of such a denial or rejection, does not make it wrong or illegitimate. A belief, value or political position cannot become a moral norm, simply by reason of being adopted by most Jews, or even by all Jews.
The third ground for the general legitimacy of antisemitism is, that increasingly, antisemitism is defined by Jews themselves, rather than by third parties such as academics. Certainly, only Jews can say, when they themselves experience antisemitism. This is now generally true for racism in all forms: racism is there, when people experience racism.
In the 19th century, the term ‘racism’ was used by scholars, to denote the theories of other scholars. Racism today is simply what some see as racism. That drives an increasing polarisation on the issue, which is evident on social media. Many African-Americans find it offensive, for instance, when white women wear dreads, and they see this as racism, specifically as racist cultural appropriation. You don’t have to be an academic to complain about this, and you don’t need to hold any specific theory about differences among races. Racism often refers to something which causes offence or outrage, and this is also true for antisemitism (which many see as a form of racism anyway). The attribution of antisemitism by Jews is in practice both subjective and expressive, since it is intended as a negative qualification. “That is antisemitic” means “that is wrong”, or “that offends me”, or “that should not happen”, or “I disapprove of that”.
This too has consequences for the legitimacy of antisemitism. If Jews experience a legitimate position, or value, or act as antisemitic, it cannot lose legitimacy on that ground alone. Their experience of antisemitism is authentic, but inevitably subjective – no matter how deep the emotions. Legitimacy must be assessed on other, objective, grounds.
In practice, these three factors cannot usually be separated. Typically, controversies on modern antisemitism start with a proposition which most Jews subscribe to, for instance that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state. That proposition is rejected by others, and that rejection can be rationally considered as objectively antisemitic. It would be classified as antisemitism under the EUMC working definition. Most Jews would also experience that rejection as overt hostility to Jews, or at least as motivated by hostility to Jews. They take offence, they are distressed, they are perhaps frightened of the consequences, and they label the rejection ‘antisemitic’. These emotions are genuine and valid, but inevitably subjective. None of this tells us whether Israel does in fact have the right to exist, whether the claimed right is legitimate, or whether its rejection is legitimate.
Arguing about the correct definition of antisemitism is therefore pointless. There is no correct definition. What is at issue is simply whether certain values and ideals and propositions are right or wrong, legitimate or illlegitimate. That judgement does not require their categorisation as antisemitic: they can, and should, be judged separately. So we don’t need to ask: “Is that antisemitic?”. We simply need to ask: “Is that right?”
What exactly is modern antisemitism?
I will now look at modern antisemitism in more detail. The starting point is the relevant beliefs of Jews – those which are held by all Jews, and those held by most or many Jews. Obviously no-one can poll every single Jew on what they think, but remember that ‘Jew’ is defined here, as a self-identified member of the Jewish people. On the basis of that conscious self-identification, reasonable assumptions are possible, about the beliefs of these individuals.
The first is that all Jews have an existence preference for Jews, and for the Jewish people. They think that there should be Jews, and they think that there should be a Jewish people, with the implication that its members have at least some shared culture. Note that an existence preference is not the same as an existence right.
If you ask Jews directly about whether they prefer the existence of Jews, the question might seem vague or pointless. However, if you put it negatively, then everyone will understand: would Jews find it acceptable, if Jews and the Jewish people ceased to exist? Their answer is ‘no, that would be unacceptable and wrong’. We can assume this answer, from those who self-identify as a Jew, because it would not be rational for someone who thinks Jews should disappear, to positively self-identify as a Jew.
There are scenarios that illustrate the question. Suppose that all Jews, for some reason, decide voluntarily to have no children. The present generation would be the last generation, and in time the last Jew will die, and there will be no more Jews. Even if no coercion or violence is involved, and the decision is freely taken, all Jews will see that outcome as a bad thing. That is a hypothetical scenario, but disappearance by assimilation is not. We can imply a general existence preference among Jews, from negative Jewish attitudes to total assimilation, which some consider to be a real threat in the medium to long term (several generations, or perhaps several centuries).
Closely related to the existence preference is the idea that the Jewish people has an intrinsic value, which is more than, or separate from, the value of the individual humans who are its members. Logically, such an intrinsic value could justify the existence preference. If an entity has intrinsic value, then, assuming there are no negative consequences, its existence is preferable to its non-existence. In practice most Jews don’t formally reason in this way: they simply attribute value to the Jewish people in itself. Usually, they also attribute value to Jewish culture and traditions.
Another closely related universal Jewish belief can be described as beneficial presence. That refers to the belief, that the Jewish people makes a positive contribution to this planet, and that the disappearance of the Jewish people would be a general loss for humanity. The assumption of beneficial presence applies to the past, the present, and the future. When it applies to the past, it is accompanied by a belief in specific Jewish contributions or achievements. All Jews believe that the Jewish people has at some time acted, or brought entities into being, to the benefit of others.
In other words, Jews do not believe that the presence of the Jews is beneficial solely to Jews. They do not believe, that the Jewish contribution to human history is limited, to simply sitting still and being admirable. They believe that Jews have done good things. Now in practice, most of the assumed Jewish contribution is simply the contribution of individuals, and presumably they could have done the same thing, if they were not Jewish. There are however identifiable contributions to human culture, which can be credited collectively to Jews, such as Jewish literature rooted in Jewish community life.
Assuming an existence preference, beneficial presence, and intrinsic value, we can derive a moral obligation to have a positive attitude to the Jewish people. Again, however, apart from a few academics, this is not how individual Jews would reason. They would simply see it a general obligation on non-Jews, to have an inherently positive judgement of the Jewish people. The reason that we don’t hear Jews say this very often, is because this universal Jewish belief is formulated in the negative: all Jews think that antisemitism is wrong. And they do say that, repeatedly.
The belief that non-Jews are morally obliged to have a positive attitude to the Jewish people as a whole, is implicit in the overwhelming moral rejection of antisemitism among Jews. Jews don’t simply disagree with antisemitic views, they think they are inherently wrong, and that it is morally wrong to hold them. All Jews think that an informed anti-semite – one who is not antisemitic purely out of ignorance – is a bad person.
There is a further Jewish assumption about the obligations of non-Jews, which is related to the existence preference, and to the belief in beneficial presence and intrinsic value. That is the idea that non-Jews are obliged to at least facilitate the existence and survival of the Jewish people, above and beyond obligations to individual members. This is not about the rescue of individual Jews from persecution, which is usually seen as a moral obligation to fellow human beings. Instead, it is about the rest of the world providing the conditions in which the Jewish people can exist, and continue to exist. That is rarely formulated so explicitly, but we can see it in the background, when the obligations of non-Jewish states toward Israel are discussed.
Anti-nationalism = racism
When these beliefs are stated formally, their similarity to nationalist ideology is apparent. You could say that there is a nationalist structure to them, even though some precede the emergence of a formal nationalist ideology, in the 19th century. That is because such beliefs and attitude are to some extent inherent in all ethnic groups, and especially in those which defined themselves as nations during the 19th and 20th century. Danes and Poles also feel that their nation should exist. They too see their nation as possessing intrinsic value, they think that their nation has contributed to the common good of humanity, and they too think that others are obliged to facilitate the continued existence of the nation, certainly by conceding its claims to sovereign territory.
Ethnic groups are always aware, that they contrast with other differing ethnic groups. They always have a name for themselves, and a name for the others. Certainly when they begin to make political claims as a group, it is inevitable that they develop a sense of their own value, and a sense of entitlement. It does not matter, whether such ideas are first formulated by an elite, or by the state – if the national identity is accepted, then the rest will follow. 19th-century nationalism listed and codified the political claims, which logically follow from the idea of a nation.
This perspective makes it easier to understand what modern anti-semitism is about. Modern antisemitism, for a large part, is the negation, rejection, or denial, of the universal Jewish beliefs and values which are listed above, and the derived political claims. That denial and rejection is exactly equivalent to the denial of the equivalent beliefs, values and positions concerning other nations. A person who rejects the existence preference of the Danes, denies the intrinsic value of the Danish people, and denies their beneficial presence on this planet, is anti-Danish. All self-identified Danes will think that such a person is wrong, and also a bad person. There is no specific word in English for anti-Danish attitudes, so their views would generally be called ‘racism’. Many Danes would be offended by those views, and would subjectively feel that such racism is directed at them personally.
Anti-nationalism does indeed deny the intrinsic value of the Danish people, it denies their beneficial presence on this planet, and it is anti-Danish by definition, since the Danes are a nation. Anti-nationalism is also anti-Polish, anti-Swedish, anti-Irish, anti-Portugese, anti-Thai, and so on. Anti-nationalism is therefore inherently racist: it is a racism directed at the members of all nations. Modern antisemitism can be considered a subset of this racist anti-nationalism. Modern antisemitism promotes beliefs, values and political positions, which are objectively in opposition to the listed beliefs and values of the Jewish people.
Some on the left may find it disturbing, to see the term ‘racism’ used in this way. Nevertheless, as with the term antisemitism, we must recognise that ‘racism’ has lost its 19th century meaning. ‘Racism’ is subject to the same definitional inflation as ‘antisemitism’. The left can indeed be racist, and certainly the left is racist when it opposes nationalism – though that opposition is not as common as the right seems to think.
The anti-nationalist position on the Jewish people is that the Jewish people, like all other nations and peoples, is historically contingent. Its existence was not inevitable, and there could have been a world in which Jews never existed. There was a time before there were Jews, and there can be a time after Jews, a future in which the Jewish people has ceased to exist.
This contingency implies that the Jewish people has made no specific contribution to human life, society and culture. In the case of the achievements of individual Jews, then, assuming the same global population, there would have been non-Jewish individuals who made an equivalent contribution. In the case of collective contributions, such as Jewish literature inspired by Jewish life, then in the absence of the Jewish people there would have been some other ethnic group, nation, or people, with an equivalent cultural contribution. If there had been no Jews, no-one would have missed them, because no-one would know what they had been missing.
Again this is true of all peoples. Irish people might be offended if told that Irish authors had made no specific contribution to world literature, but in fact non-Irish people would have written novels and poetry, in the absence of Irish authors. They would not be identical, because every nation’s literature is unique, but we can not prove they would be worse. The fact that a national culture is unique, does not prove it is better than another, or that it ought to exist, or that its existence takes priority over another national culture, or over non-national cultures. Even if there was a moral obligation to maximise unique cultures, that would still not justify a preference for national over non-national cultures, which they would displace. It would not create an existence preference for any specific national culture. And indeed, given a finite global population, a culture-maximisation principle would imply a minimal population for each nation or people, so that most existing nations and peoples would be broken up anyway.
In terms of their impact, the Jewish people has no beneficial presence. No nation or people is beneficial to the planet as whole. They are all trans-generational, and seek to transmit their ancient culture to future generations, which is inherently contra-innovative. They have repeatedly engaged in mutual conflict, even before the period of modern nation-states. And obviously, their existence is a root cause of the emergence of nation-states themselves, which are conservative, internally repressive, and prone to unjustified conflict with other nation-states.
This planet would clearly have been better off, in the absence of nations and peoples. The Jewish people is in no way exempt, from this negative judgement on its existence.
For these reasons, there can be no intrinsic value in any nation or people, certainly not in the sense of justifying their continued existence. There can be no existence preference for any specific nation or people, let alone an ‘existence right’. A planet without nations and peoples, is not a loss. It is not perhaps a guarantee of progress to something better, but it is not a loss.
These considerations may seem very abstruse, but if you look carefully, you can see them implicitly quoted as underlying moral justifications for the existence of the State of Israel. These are real-world issues.
The derived political demands include, for instance, a demand that the Jewish people should exist, because it has intrinsic value. From that follows a claim that the world should be so arranged, that the existence of the Jewish people is maintained. So then there must be a Jewish state, and the global geopolitical order must be so arranged, as to maintain its existence. This type of political demand, could be derived from a moral obligation on non-Jewish societies and states, to maintain the existence of a Jewish people.
That language ought to be more recognisable. Israeli politicians, ambassadors, and government spokesmen do say things like that. So even if you have not heard these propositions before, they are recognisable as logical claims by the State of Israel and its supporters. I will now look at the more overt political claims about Israel, to explain the specific nature of left antisemitism.
What is left antisemitism in Europe?
Left antisemitism in Europe is the negation, rejection, or denial, of certain beliefs, values and political positions held by a majority of Jews, although not all Jews, in both Europe and Israel. These are…
- Jews are a people. Specifically, they are not solely adherents of a universal religion.
- For the purposes of state formation, the Jewish people is a nation, equivalent to other nations.
- The Jewish people has a right to exist, which is unlimited in time.
- The Jewish people has a national homeland, just like other nations.
- The ancient national homeland of the Jews is located in the Land of Israel, which coincides wholly or partly with former British Mandate Palestine, and definitely includes the city of Jerusalem.
- The Jewish people has a right to form a sovereign nation-state, on all or part of this ancient national homeland, to serve as a modern national homeland for the Jewish people.
- The Jewish people has a legitimate claim to territory, for the purpose of forming and maintaining a Jewish nation-state.
- In keeping with its function as national homeland for the Jewish people, this state must have a Jewish character.
- The Jewish nation-state also has a right to exist, which is unlimited in time.
These are standard political geopolitical claims of nationalist ideologies. Nevertheless, not all were historically supported by Jews in Europe. The idea that the ‘Jewish people’ is a nation comparable to, for instance, Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians, was first widely promoted in the 19th century. It stood in explicit opposition to other visions of the status of the Jews, and in opposition to assimilationism. The claim to a sovereign Jewish nation-state, to be populated by migration from Europe, initially had little support among Europe’s Jews.
Since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, however, almost all Jews in Europe are emotionally and rationally committed to these principles. In Israel itself, they are part of a state ideology, and pervasively promoted, from primary school onwards. We can’t blame it on Israeli indoctrination, however. Jews in Europe have no direct contact with that climate, but nevertheless the fundamental legitimacy of the State of Israel is almost undisputed among them.
Now, even if almost all Jews believe in the Jewish people’s right to a sovereign national homeland, and hold its denial to be antisemitic, it remains legitimate to deny that claim. It is in essence a political claim, without moral status. The denial is both objectively antisemitic, but at the same time legitimate.
The implicit programme of left antisemitism can be formulated like this:
- Nations and peoples do not have existence rights, therefore the Jewish people has no existence rights.
- There is no moral necessity for the existence of ethnic groups, peoples and/or nations, or for the existence of any specific nation or people. Individuals may prefer these things, but that is purely a private preference.
- There is no moral obligation on non-Jews to facilitate the existence of the Jewish people, or any other nation or people.
- There is no moral obligation on non-Jews, to adopt a positive attitude to the Jewish people, or to form a positive judgement of that group, or any other nation or people.
- The Jewish people is a nation for the purposes of state formation, but that confers no right to form a nation-state, or to claim territory for that purpose.
- Like other nations, the Jewish people has a national homeland, known to them as the Land of Israel, but that confers no valid claim to territory, either there or elsewhere.
- Specifically the Jewish people has no right, nor any valid claim, to the creation of a Jewish state in Israel or elsewhere, even if that state does in fact serve as a national homeland for the Jewish people.
- The existing Jewish state, the State of Israel, has no right to exist, and has no valid claim to its continued existence.
- There is no moral obligation on other states, or on any private individual, to facilitate the existence of a Jewish state, or any other nation-state.
- There is no moral obligation to arrange the global geopolitical order, in such as way that Israel’s continued existence is maintained. Specifically there is no obligation for other states, to act in defence of its existence.
Jews in Europe
Closely related to the global existence preference and beneficial presence thesis, are implicit positions held by most Jews in Europe, concerning the future of Jews in Europe. Those are becoming more explicit, as European Jews feel increasingly threatened, by mass immigration from Muslim-majority countries.
Many Jews in Europe think that there should be Jews in Europe. In turn, they also feel that European societies and states should be so ordered, that the presence of Jews in Europe is maintained. That implies that policies on, for instance, refugees and immigration, should be so formulated as to prevent threats to a Jewish presence in Europe.
The left antisemitic rejection of these positions, implies that there is no moral obligation to have Jews present in Europe, or indeed any other nation or people. Consequently, there is no reason to arrange European states and societies, so as to guarantee the continued presence of Jews. Specifically that would mean, that there is no reason to regulate migrant and refugee flows to that end.
Left antisemitism can be best understood in terms of conflicting values, rather than as a form of one-sided prejudice. Paradoxically, the best way to understand and formulate left antisemitism, is to look at the claims and values of Israel’s supporters. Advocacy for Israel uses the language, principles, and ideology of nationalism, because Israel is a nation-state. The rejection of this nationalism is valid, but inevitably has consequences for the Jewish people. The ethics of the State of Israel cannot be considered, without considering the Jewish people. The issues are inseparable, because nation-states are inseparable from nations.