Essay: Inside the Antisemitic Left
Aug 26, 2021 | Kathleen Hayes
The beliefs that give our lives meaning are passed down to us by people we cherish. For those on the Left, these men and women are often dearer than family: comrades with whom we have worked and fought; shared jokes, drinks and beds; endured a third round of brain-numbing discussion on a glorious summer day while other people thoughtlessly picnic in the park. Our evolving sense of what is true is inextricably entwined with our respect and, most of all, our love for the person who teaches it to us. We think that the things they say and write and the ideas in the books they recommend must be true – because we know them to be honourable, intelligent people and we love them.
I was a devoted Trotskyist for 25 years. My initiation took place at a protest against former Soviet refusenik leader Natan Sharansky. It was 1987. I was a callow 19-year-old Berkeley University student and an anti-apartheid activist; my soon-to-be comrades were the smartest, funniest, most good-hearted yet irreverent people I had ever known. There was, predictably, a guy in the picture – my genial bespectacled boyfriend who had introduced me to the party – and the uneasy suggestion that my sudden conversion to Marxism wasn’t a purely intellectual epiphany.
I had almost certainly never heard of Sharansky (or Shcharansky, as he was at the time), but when an older comrade I particularly admired asked me, a glint of mischief in her eyes, whether I’d like to come to a ‘bright red demo’ against an anti-communist traitor who had spied on the Soviet workers state, I’d heard almost everything I needed. I joined their small picket line in front of the San Francisco hotel where Sharansky was speaking; and when it was over, I soaked up my new comrades’ attention and praise like a parched little flower after a long drought.
‘I never saw any antisemitism,’ we so often hear today. And so I didn’t, or seldom did, in the decades of leftist political activity that followed. It was embedded in the fabric, a thread that ran unseen throughout an avowedly emancipating worldview and was inextricable from it. It stitched together a legacy that included Marx’s sometimes-troubling writings about Jews; subterranean beliefs about an association between Jews, trade and capitalism; longstanding hostility to Jewish “particularism”; a Marxist heritage that could claim some principled opponents of antisemitism in its ranks but also many who were ambivalent or complacent about it, sometimes with deadly consequences, some outright antisemites, and every shade between.
I suspected none of this the day I joined that picket line: quite the contrary, despite all the fulminating against Zionism and the Anti-Defamation League. A prominent sign carried that day – “20 million Soviet citizens died smashing Third Reich!”- established beyond all doubt that the party was firmly on the side of good against evil. And, of course, staunchly against antisemitism.
So it takes hold. A certain way of thinking and feeling begins to flourish, in which you are on the side of progress and good, with people and a cause you grow to love more than life itself; while on the other side of that divide are “the Jews” – or, at least, the vast majority of Jews who do not unambiguously renounce Israel to the Left’s satisfaction.
In this essay, I will not be tracing the history of antisemitism in the Marxist movement, or its extension to the left more broadly. Many historians and sociologists have done that already (e.g., Robert Wistrich, David Hirsh, Dave Rich, Robert Fine and Philip Spencer). What I will try to do is describe how unrecognised antisemitism gained a hold over me; the purpose I think it served; and how I came to, at least consciously, recognise and reject it.
I’m not placing myself at the centre of this account because I’m fond of self-exposure. In fact, this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.
It’s not only hard because I’m admitting I held some horrible views and was maybe simply an idiot; but because despite everything, part of me cringes at the thought I’m betraying people and a cause that provided meaning to my every breath for many years.
It’s probably no coincidence that as I have been writing this, I keep dreaming of my former comrades. I often have nightmares involving them (oh God I have to sell that newspaper again), but these past nights my comrades are laughing or embracing me. Despite the affection they show, I know they have appeared to tell me they do not want me to write, that they hate what I am writing and the person I have become, and this knowledge makes every word an act of will. I’m writing anyway, in the hope that some good may yet come from my experience – first, that it might provide a different, or at least fuller, perspective to those committed to studying and fighting antisemitism; and second, that it might help others who thought as I once did to at least question their views.
I joined the party, beginning with its youth organisation, because I wanted to fight for a better world and had become convinced Marxism was key to that. This is what I told myself and others countless times over the years that followed – and indeed, I remember my moment of decision as a conscious, reasoned act, one marking me as someone willing to swim against the stream. But it wasn’t that simple; truly life-altering decisions never are. I can recount the arguments that convinced me, but what really made my conversion all but inevitable was my respect and, most of all, my love for the people who argued them. Some might call my decision a leap of faith, but although there’s much truth to that, I prefer to compare it to a seduction. My sun-dappled Southern California childhood had given me everything except a sense of belonging and purpose, and I was ripe to give myself. I discovered the dubious euphoria of surrender to the party.
It came at a price. Wine-fuelled parties, jokes and selfless dedication to rid the world of all oppression: that was one side of party life. The other was brutal. It takes hold inexorably like an abusive relationship; by the time you start to think of leaving, as you inevitably must, your soul is so fully theirs that life outside is viewed as no better than death. So you immerse yourself ever more deeply into the party. You lie to your parents and any non-party friends you might have, both because your membership is a secret and because they wouldn’t understand.
Your world shrinks to a succession of meeting rooms in which your dear, witty, intelligent comrades periodically accuse each other – and sometimes, devastatingly, you – of capitulating to the bourgeoisie. You survive your victimisation, barely, and await vengeance by becoming one of the accusers. It is quite sick. Yet the beating heart of this toxic cycle is the most fervent and loving dedication to humanity found this side of sainthood.
This is the authoritarian organisation, in which a hunger for meaning, community and fulfilment is alternately fed and starved. My party proclaimed itself committed to total equality, while an invisible nexus of sex, power and what I experienced as love served to entrench and sanction hierarchy and oppression.
At the pinnacle stood the Great Leader, whose every pronouncement was regarded with reverence. No one acknowledged or even saw how power ineluctably determined decisions “freely” made, or how it enabled the toleration of certain behaviours which can only be deemed abuse.
We all, myself included, performed mental acrobatics when necessary to defend the Great Leader’s integrity and that of the party. We learned not only to lie, but – since we simultaneously believed in our absolute scrupulousness – to believe the lies. The reward was a renewed sense of unity against our enemies, whose rendition of truth was wrong because it was against the party.
COMRADES AND ENEMIES
This is the context in which antisemitism took root. The party needed enemies as a way of cohering itself, and had them in abundance. The capitalist ruling class was one obvious if distant target, but far more venom was spewed against other leftists, some of whom I learned to hate with the fervour of a Maoist Red Guard. Then there were the ‘bourgeois feministssssss’ (uttered with a hiss), against whom the party’s fulminations sometimes reached such borderline-obscene fury it bore a distinct whiff of misogyny.
But most of all there were the reactionary, preternaturally sinister ‘Zionistsssssss’. And I was no more capable of questioning my beloved party’s attitude towards Zionism and Israel than I was of challenging the belief that the Earth is round.
The pattern was repeated with regard to the Soviet Union: authoritarianism writ large. Lenin was the paradigmatic Great Leader, and the October Revolution the battle line between the righteous and their many enemies. The dispiriting realities of America in the late 20th century could be forgotten by immersing ourselves in a history populated by Bolshevik heroes and counter-revolutionary villains – much as those in a less secular age drew solace from The Lives of the Saints.
The injunction to hail the October Revolution made it completely impossible to consider, even in the hidden depths of one’s mind, whether the ‘bureaucratic abuses’ attributed to Stalinism might have begun earlier, with the Great Leader himself; and it meant that no matter how harshly we denounced Stalinism as Trotskyists, we had to suppress a sometimes-troubling legacy of our own. The binary view of October as something one is either for or against inevitably cast Jews – beginning with but not limited to Zionists – as enemies.
Historians have documented how a deluge of antisemitic Stalinist propaganda took root in the Left during and after the Six-Day War, resulting in an increasingly foam-flecked anti-Zionism. My party was undoubtedly one to respond in this way: although its newspaper articles continued to assert Israel’s right to exist, those diligent formulations were effectively negated through vitriolic anti-Zionism. But there is another consequence of the 1967 war that has received less attention: how afterwards increasing numbers of Soviet Jews attempted to emigrate to Israel or the West; were refused by Soviet authorities; and were declared enemies of the Soviet workers state in echoes of the notorious antisemitic Stalinist show trials.
The Cold War in the 1970s and ‘80s was to some extent fought over the bodies of Soviet Jews, ‘refusenik’ dissidents like Sharansky. Pro-Sovietism and antisemitism went hand in hand.
The Palestinian struggle filled the vacuum left by the Soviet Union’s collapse. Communism is dead, but the Intifada lives. Burgeoning anti-Israel protests and pro-Palestinian campus activism provided a sense of solidarity that warmed a cold and lonely world. Very rarely, my party objected to some display of antisemitism by our fellow defenders of the Palestinians, but it had to be extreme and crude: blood libels, Rothschild references. Swastikas were obviously antisemitic outrages – unless they were twinned with the Star of David, in which case they denoted justified outrage at the Zionist jackboot. It didn’t occur to me there was anything wrong with this, or with the party’s frequent use of terms associated with Nazism – “untermenschen”, “master race” and of course “Holocaust” – to describe Zionism’s ideology and goals. I swam in a sea of antisemitism for years and didn’t notice the water was filthy.
There’s one related issue that deserves note: the role of the Jewish anti-Zionist leftist. My party, like so many others, contained many Jewish members, some of whom were central to developing the party’s line on Israel. They gave it a legitimacy that would have been impossible otherwise. The party’s “Near East expert” – a scholarly, mild-mannered Jewish guy prone to exclaiming ‘Oy gevalt!’ – could not be an antisemite. Or so I thought. I also assumed I couldn’t be an antisemite because of my own family background: although my name is Irish, on my mother’s side I am Dutch-Jewish. Of all I’m ashamed of, near top of the list is how I invoked my great-grandfather, murdered in Auschwitz, to prove (to myself, if no one else) my innocence of antisemitism.
Yet for all my shame, I don’t think anything is gained by declaring myself an antisemite. There needs to be a better way of looking at this, one that rejects the dichotomy between antisemites and non-antisemites. What exist, rather, are myriad shades of grey, which shift over time according to unrecognised need. And which, sometimes, put us at war with our own identities.
AFTER THE PARTY: HANGOVER AND SOBRIETY
Fast-forward to 2016. I’d been living and doing political work with the party in London for several years. I quit the party that year for a combination of political and personal reasons I won’t go into, except to say it shook my faith in my comrades as compassionate beings. A more devastating personal experience soon after I quit left me reeling. I felt incredibly alone and betrayed. I’d thought my comrades were more than family and more than friends. It transpired they were neither; that transcendent love had been all in my head.
Only these painful personal shocks made it possible for me first to question, then to see what had been hiding in plain sight all along: first the party’s streak of misogyny and the Great Leader’s direct role in it; then the disturbing brutal side of the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks I’d revered. My former beliefs shattered, one after another, in the loneliest, most disorienting time of my life.
But I couldn’t stop: I had to know what I believed out of the party. I’d joined Labour, like so many far-left enthusiasts of Jeremy Corbyn, the moment I quit; and like so many others, I’d insisted the antisemitism charges simply reflected right-wing attempts to smear him and socialism.
But after watching the “Panorama” documentary ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’ twice, I decided to do some fact-checking. My first assignment was clear-cut: investigating the truth behind Ken Livingstone’s claims that the Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis which, I’m ashamed to say, I believed completely. My former party swore by the same book by Lenni Brenner that Livingstone cited. Only because my faith in them had been shaken, if not quite destroyed, could I even think to question it. My search soon brought me to a Fathom article by Paul Bogdanor, which I found devastating. I kept reading. And finally, sickened, realised that the people and beliefs I’d loved with all my heart – and I – had been horribly, shockingly wrong.
So I kept reading Fathom. Yet even well after I’d accepted much of what Fathom had to say about antisemitism, I was confounded when I considered that I was reading and agreeing with – my God – Zionists. I thought perhaps I’d lost my mind. It took a long time, and many books and articles, before I could ask the question that never occurred to me all those years I was an anti-Zionist – ‘What is Zionism, actually?’ – and wonder how and why self-determination for the Jewish people came to be seen as the epitome of evil. I had to be painfully stripped of my most precious possession – the love of my comrades – before I could even pose that question and start looking for answers.
SONGS OF LOVE AND HATE
Eve Garrard’s brilliant essay ‘The pleasures of antisemitism’ notes that antisemitism is less about thoughts than feelings: the transgressive pleasure of hate. To this I would only add that the hate has a corollary, love. For the left, love for one’s comrades, party, the Soviet Union (once), or even socialism demands someone to hate – someone against whom hate (or a vaguer hostility) is sanctioned by those who have authority over us. Jews, often in the form of Zionists, are the hate-object that makes possible the leftist’s most transcendent love. This is what makes it so intractable: its inextricable association with all the leftist finds righteous and dear.
Ours is an increasingly fragmented world, and each of us seeks meaning and comradeship where we can. We choose our tribe, with cherished people and beliefs, and cling to them as if our lives depend on it, which in a sense they do. I get this, the fervour of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters. It’s the Great Leader thing all over again. They love him and need to believe in the hope he seems to offer; as a result they perceive criticism of him as almost an existential assault. In this febrile climate, it may seem futile to try to convince anyone she might be wrong about something as ugly as antisemitism.
Yet successes are possible, minds changed here and there: count me as one. So thank you, Fathom. As Karl Kautsky wrote Jean Jaurès in 1899, saluting him for taking up the fight for Dreyfus and against antisemitism: “I wish your noble work full success and shake your hand with friendship.”