Firstly, let me say this is not a conventional book review. It is more so an ongoing critical reflection on what the anti-Zionist Left (i.e. those who reject Israel’s continuing existence as a Jewish state even within the Green Line borders, and instead advocate so-called universalistic solutions which in the current political culture of the Middle East can only lead to a new ethnocentric Arab-dominated state of Greater Palestine) is arguing about anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party and in other progressive groups elsewhere.
Let me add that this book by David Renton is far better than those which have preceded it from other anti-Zionist sources (e.g. Philo et al. 2019; Stern-Weiner 2019). But I understand there are other supposedly good books on the way (e.g. Randall 2021), hence my reluctance to make this the last word.
Regardless, the good news is that this book unequivocally rejects anti-Semitism. There are no ifs or buts in this rejection, no qualification that their racism against Jews is somewhat mitigated by their public stands against anti-Black racism or anti-Muslim prejudice, or that their anti-Semitism is a reasonable component of their advocacy for Palestinian rights.
Renton makes this clear from the very start where he exposes a number of common forms of anti-Semitism such as labelling Jewish Labour MPs traitors, or alternatively promoting conspiracy theories that frame Jews as a secret cabal of powerful financiers responsible for various historical crimes including the Holocaust. Other common manifestations of anti-Semitism are later canvassed such as essentialising and denouncing the historical actions of Zionism without providing an informed and nuanced political context, accusing Jews of controlling the Atlantic slave trade (i.e. Jackie Walker), and assuming that an all-powerful global Zionist lobby is responsible for any pro-Israel political activity. In short, he argues that the Left has a moral and political obligation to confront and oppose anti-Semitism on the Left, irrespective of what the political right is doing or saying about Jews.
He also urges the Left to educate itself to develop an informed and nuanced perspective regarding the diverse politics and class breakdown of British Jewry, rather than making ignorant assumptions about their views on Zionism and Israel, the representative nature of their leadership bodies, and their alleged concentration in particular economic classes (p.197).
Renton addresses a number of specific examples of Labour’s Antisemitism crisis. He carefully dissects the absurd argument of Ken Livingstone that Hitler supported Zionism, and that the Nazis were in some way responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. In making this criticism, Renton could have drawn on substantial historical scholarship regarding alleged Zionist-Nazi collaboration that were commonplace in the anti-Zionist Left in earlier decades, particularly in regards to the infamous 1987 play Perdition by Jim Allen (Mendes 2014: 86-88). If he had done so, he might have noted that film maker Ken Loach (who has a minor bit role in Renton’s book) figured in that earlier story as the Director of what Victoria Radin in the New Statesman rightly labelled Allen’s ‘blaming the victim’ play (Allen 1987: 136-138). This omission of key historical sources and references is a minor weakness of Renton’s book which I will return to later.
Renton also dissects the controversy around the alleged remarks of Israeli anti-Zionist Miko Peled and Ken Loach implying that the historical truth of the Holocaust should be open to question. He denies that either speaker intended to deny the Holocaust (not sure I agree on that), but acknowledges that Loach particularly was wrong to equate a discussion of Holocaust denial with a discussion of Israel’s alleged crimes. Renton could have extended this discussion to analyse why the likes of Loach can only frame Jews/Zionists as oppressors, whereas any reasonable historical overview of the last two centuries would firmly identify Jews as a historically oppressed people.
Additionally, small sections of the far Left have previously dabbled in historical denial as revealed via the infamous Faurisson Affair that involved the clueless Noam Chomsky (Mendes 2014: 82-85). A reference to this historical context would have further illuminated the far Right quagmire into which Loach was quickly sinking. Additionally, Renton documents the appalling convergence between far right and far left sources in relation to the vile anti-Semitic and misogynist abuse directed at Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger.
Renton rejects the view often expressed by defenders of Corbyn’s Labour that only a tiny number of extremists (often framed as Trotskyist entryists) espoused the most objectionable anti-Jewish conspiracy theories alleging Jewish control of global media, finances and power. To the contrary, he argues that what he calls a ‘diluted’ form of antisemitism was shared by tens of thousands of party members (p.117). He notes that between April and October 2020 alone, 235 Labour members were investigated for antisemitism, and 83 formally expelled. He argues that anti-Jewish discourse moved from the ‘margins’ to the ‘centre’ of the Party (p.118).
Renton is also consistently critical of the role played by the Jewish Voice for Labour group (which he rightly distinguishes from the eccentric Jewdas group) in defending and apologizing for some of the worst manifestations of antisemitism in the Labour Party. He correctly portrays many of the key JVL figures as wedded to a solely political rather than Jewish identity, and openly willing to provide an alibi for those who wish to do Jews harm. He reasonably argues that ‘Jews (including anti-Zionist Jews) can say anti-Semitic things: whether about themselves, about people they disagree with, or about Israeli citizens’ (p.129). In my opinion, anti-Semitic Jews (who have sometimes been labelled the equivalent of ‘Uncle Toms’) are no different to other tiny sections of oppressed groups (i.e. Blacks or gay people) who defend racism or prejudice against those groups.
In drawing these sound conclusions, Renton may have benefited from engaging with existing critical reflections on the complex question as to whether or not Jewish-identifying anti-Zionists can claim a legitimate role in contemporary Jewish communities (Mendes 2014: 277-284). Additionally, there is also an historical context he could have drawn on concerning the role of some far Left Jews in displaying solidarity with anti-Semites rather than Jewish victims of racism. For example, the French Jewish Communist Maxime Rodinson defended Stalin’s Doctors Plot in 1953, asserting that Zionism was the means by which ‘treason penetrated the socialist world’ (cited in Mendes 2014: 77). And in 1987, Maxime Rodinson, Noam Chomsky, Tony Greenstein and others publicly defended the anti-Semitic Perdition play discussed above (Allen 1987: 106-09, 135).
As already noted, the major limitation of this book is that it doesn’t provide an historical analysis of left-wing antisemitism to contextualize the contemporary debate. To be sure, the author oddly commences on p.194 a very brief discussion of the disproportionate historical involvement of Jews in the Left but without noting that Jewish socialist groups such as the Bund were often attacked and marginalized by the universal Left including most famously at the 1903 RSDLP Conference he mentions. Nor does he actively engage with the key historical literature concerning left-wing attitudes to Jews (e.g. Mendes 2014: 127-218).
There is no discussion here of the anti-Jewish racism prevalent in much of the early late 19th century socialist movement from Marx to Fourier to Bakunin to Lassalle to the Russian populists, and no reference to the infamous refusal of the 1891 Socialist Internationale conference to condemn antisemitism. Renton could have reasonably argued that this socialist prejudice was superseded by the principled opposition displayed by many (if not most) 20th century Marxists to antisemitism. Yet, it would have still been relevant and indeed informative not only to discuss Stalinist antisemitism, but also the terrible apologia that many Western communists (including Jewish communists) offered for the Stalinist show trials and the USSR’s ongoing suppression of Jewish culture and identity (Mendes 2014: 37-95).
There is arguably a common thread between what was argued by some apologists for the Slansky Trial and the Doctors Plot in the 1950s – that a few suffering Jews didn’t matter if the entire planet was liberated from repressive capitalism – and the recent suggestion by supporters of Corbyn – that the sensitivities of the small Jewish community to racist abuse should not be allowed to derail the Labour Party’s magnificent egalitarian mission. An alternative view might, however, suggest that if the Left does not stand up for the historically oppressed Jews, it cannot seriously claim to represent/advance justice for any oppressed groups.
Additionally, there are a number of statements in the book that range from problematic to factually inaccurate. I think Renton seriously under states (p.19) the overt anti-Semitism that emanated from pro-Palestinian groups at the ironically named World Conference against Racism held in Durban in September 2001 as reflected in widespread distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and fliers praising Hitler (Mendes & Dyrenfurth 2015: 40-41). It was that openly racist conference, convened at the height of the Islamic suicide bombings campaign that characterized the Second Palestinian Intifada, which informed and inspired the racist BDS movement that followed.
Similarly, his insistence that many Palestinians including the famous intellectual Edward Said have rejected antisemitism and carefully distinguished their anti-Zionism from anti-Jewish racism (p.99) completely ignores the views of the Islamo-fascist Hamas which controls Gaza and seriously challenges Fatah for leadership of the Palestinian people. Yet Hamas is a bastion of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and paranoia. Their 1988 Constitution – to date not repealed – states in Article 22 that Jews seek world domination and ‘with their money have stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard about, here and there’ (cited in Mendes 2014: 234).
His description of Israeli anti-Zionist Miko Peled as a ‘peace activist’ (p.93) is surely ironic given a rudimentary use of google reveals that Peled seems to endorse the ultra-nationalist BDS movement which employs racist stereotyping to essentialize all Israeli Jews as evil oppressors, advocates the destruction of the State of Israel, and equates most living Jews with Nazi views: https://www.thejc.com/news/uk/miko-peled-zionists-do-not-deserve-a-platform-1.447859
Ditto his reference to campaigner for George Galloway’s far Left Respect Party Yvonne Ridley as a ‘Muslim anti-war activist’ (p.96). Ridley is best known for stating in a February 2006 address at Imperial College in London: ‘Respect is a Zionist-free party. If there was any Zionism in the Respect Party they would be hunted down and kicked out’: https://leftfootforward.org/2012/11/yvonne-ridley-respect-rotherham-hamas/. In my opinion, she was arguing for a racially pure political party free of Jewish contamination.
Although Renton is rigorously critical of Corbyn in large sections of the book, I think he seriously understates the malevolent component of Jeremy’s pro-Palestinian politics. Renton notes correctly that Corbyn supported a so-called one-state solution in the 1980s, but adds contentiously that this state would be ‘open equally to Jews and non-Jews; (p.162). This makes Corbyn sound at that time like an advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace, rather than acknowledging that most Palestinian and Arab leaders prior to the 1993 Oslo Accord were demanding the violent destruction of the State of Israel and the ethnic cleansing if not genocide of its Jewish population. In fact, the PLO was consistent until at least the late 1980s in clarifying that a State of Palestine would not be a bi-national state, but rather an exclusively Arab state in which Jews (or some Jews) would be granted cultural and religious freedom, but no national rights (Mendes 2014: 119).
Additionally, Renton asserts on two occasions (pp.93, 162) that Corbyn later reverted from his abolish Israel position to support for two states. But is this interpretation accurate? Some anti-Zionists claim to support two states, but then demand that Israel accept a coerced return of millions of Palestinian refugees which would immediately turn the Jewish state into a bi-national or majority Arab state. Maybe I am being overly tough, but I am not entirely sure that Corbyn accepts let alone welcomes a long-term vision for the Middle East that includes Israel as a state of the Jews.
Completely inaccurate is his statement that the ‘the Israeli Left promises to continue but mitigate the injustice of occupation’ (p.122). In fact, the Israeli Left and peace movement has campaigned since the late 1980s for a two-state solution that would end the Israeli military occupation and settlements within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and result in two states (Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab) living side by side in peace. To be sure, there is no sense denying that the Israeli Left has lost ground in recent decades, and actions on the ground (i.e. expanding both the number of settlements and particularly settlers) are making it more difficult to disengage the Israeli and Palestinian populations. But that erosion of support and momentum for two states is undeniably the result of actions by both Israelis and Palestinians over the past two or more decades. Renton’s statement confuses political principles and intent with political reality.
A similar statement refers to the veteran (radical Left) Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery as allegedly ‘muting’ (p.163) his criticism of Israel in the 2000s. In fact, it would only take a simple google to show that Avnery mostly sided with the Palestinians regarding the causes of the Second Intifada and the ongoing violence that resulted. But of course, he did not support those demanding the abolition of Israel via a so-called one-state solution because to the contrary he believed in a two state solution that respected the national rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.
I also worry about Renton’s seemingly principled statement that ‘it is possible to demand the absolute equality of Jews and non-Jews in the Middle East’ (p.183) without blaming Israeli actions on Jewish character traits. Yes indeed. But is Renton meaning in this statement to also demand that the multiple Arab majority countries which as he acknowledges on p.38 ethnically cleansed their previously large Jewish populations, now restore their citizenship and property rights? Only last week, many Jews commemorated the 80th anniversary of the infamous farhud of 1941, the pogrom that killed at least 180 Jews in Baghdad seven years before Israel was founded (Mendes 2021). The silence of the anti-Zionist Left concerning that traumatic event is telling in terms of their selective approach to attacking racism in the Middle East.
I also feel at times that Renton conflates religion and nationalism. On page 58 in a discussion about racism, he refers to views about Muslims. Yet Islam is a religion that consists of multiple nations and ethnic groups, it is not a national group in itself and certainly not a race whatever that concept might reasonably be defined as. Later on page 175, he argues that the ‘Muslim proportion of Israel and Palestine is already closing on 50 per cent’. I wonder here if he has made an inadvertent mistake using the term Muslim rather than Arab given that a sizeable minority of Palestinians are Christians. But even if not (and to be sure a simple google suggests that at least 95 per cent of Palestinians are Muslims), this term seems to essentialize all Palestinian Muslims as holding the same rigid nationalist beliefs despite the fact that many Palestinian Druze serve in the Israeli army etc.
Questions for Anti-Zionists
1) Given that the vast majority of Jews support the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state (at least within the pre-1967 Green Line borders), can you develop a new form of non-discriminatory language that ceases to demonize all Zionists (i.e. supporters of Israel’s existence), including the many Jews who endorse a two state solution recognizing Palestinian national rights to self-determination alongside Israel, as apologists for racism and oppression and hence a political enemy that needs to be destroyed?
2) Given that the progressive Left claims to be informed by internationalist rather than nationalist assumptions, can you develop a new form of inclusive language that supports Palestinian Arab national and human rights without directly negating the national and human rights of Israeli Jews? In short, a position that does not take favour one or the other side in a complex national conflict, and accepts that conflict resolution will necessarily involve only partial rather than absolute justice.
Allen, Jim (1987) Perdition: A play in two acts. Ithaca Press, London.
Mendes, Philip (2014) Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a political alliance. Palgrave MacMillan. Houndmills. https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137008299#aboutBook
Mendes, Philip and Dyrenfurth, Nick (2015) Boycotting Israel is wrong: The progressive path to peace between Palestinians and Israelis. New South Publishing. Sydney.
Philo, Greg et al (2019) Bad news for Labour. Pluto Press, London.
Randall, Daniel (2021) Confronting anti-Semitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists. No Pasaran Media, London.
Stern-Weiner, Jamie (2019), ed. Anti-Semitism and the Labour Party. Verso, London.