Preparing the ground for repression
Further scares about anti-Semitism are signs of the times, reckons Paul Demarty
Not for the first time in recent memory, we are faced with a flurry of stories about incidence of anti-Semitism.
There was, a few weeks ago, the much publicised story of a man - caught, as is the way with our panoptic age, on a mobile phone camera - berating a Jewish family on the London underground, waving a copy of the Bible around and frothing away with a - how to put this? - indelicate interpretation of the passion of Jesus of Nazareth. Increasingly concerned fellow commuters intervened on the right side.
Then there was a spate of graffiti in cosy Hampstead, with numerous shops, selected apparently at random, and a synagogue, decorated with a star of David and the text “9/11” - unambiguously a signifier of the anti- Semitic conspiracy theory that places the Jews as the devious perpetrators of the attacks on the Twin Towers. There is even the curious case of Tom Pope, the big-mouthed big man up front for lowly Port Vale Football Club, who scored in his team’s FA cup tie against reigning champions Manchester City, having previously mocked City defender John Stones for his all-round puniness (“if I played against him every week I’d score 40 goals a year”). His brief fame among casual football fans as a roguish underdog evaporated the moment he let loose a further tweet suggesting, ‘humorously’, that the result of World War III would be the Rothschilds being crowned champion of the banks.1
On the back of all this, there has arisen a story of anti-Semitism on the rise - or re-risen, since periodic panics of this sort are one of the rhythms of contemporary life (Why? We shall see). And unsurprisingly, when you get to the ‘something must be done’ part of the argument, the ‘something’ is not to be ‘done’ to those who call Jews the Christ-killers, or blame them for false flag operations, or reheat old prejudices about Jewish bankers. No doubt the first two miscreants we mentioned will be caught and brought to book, and Tom Pope will at least be sent on some sort of sensitivity course; but the real target is the pro- Palestinian movement - particularly that part of it that calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
The logic that permits this is fuzzy at best: the idea is that the increasing popularity of the BDS movement somehow creates a climate where anti-Semitism can thrive, and so it is important to strike the problem at the root. “Some fear [BDS] has legitimised anti-Semitism,” writes Camilla Cavendish in a typical jeremiad in the Financial Times.2 Of course, “some fear” that vaccines cause autism; indeed, “some fear” that a Jewish cabal controls the US government. The fears of “some” are not reality. The reality of Cavendish’s article, meanwhile, is that all of her examples of anti-Semitic activity that actually involve blaming Jews in general for things or rehearsing age-old conspiracy theories about bankers are plainly the activity of the far right. Those attributed to the left invariably involve slanderous invitations that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. To put it bluntly, it is not BDS activists who are scrawling stars of David around the place, but it is, of course, BDS activists about whom ‘something must be done’, because it is, on average, most likely BDS activists who oppose the grubby operations of the British foreign office and its cravenness before the United States.
Moves to ban local councils from adopting BDS policies for their pension funds and so on, already mooted by Johnson’s government, are therefore likely to expand in scope. There is already a great deal of pressure on universities on this point (which are demanded to defend the ‘free speech’ of far-right creeps and anti-trans feminists by the same Tory hypocrites who expect them to clamp down on ‘anti-Semites’). We should not rule out the possibility of leftwing organisations finding themselves subject to action under the Prevent strategy, in a revival of what was fairly normal during the cold war in many countries (notably in West Germany).
There are many reasons - local to Britain in 2020; international; and more distantly world-historical.
The widest context is worth filling in first, purely because the left has almost forgotten how to do this kind of thinking altogether. Strategic analysis now seems to consist in coming up with some grand theory of the current random protest movements in vogue, to be abandoned in the next year’s ‘perspectives’ document when such movements are replaced by others.
Here we need say no more than that capitalism is in its decline; and one of the usual features of declining modes of production is the increasing statisation of social life, with concomitant intolerance of dissent. The late Roman empire was vastly more intolerant than the republic, never mind the city states of classical Greece. Likewise, the absolute monarchies of late feudalism, as measured against the chaotic societies of the early and high Middle Ages - think of the extensive counter-subversive apparatus of Elizabethan England, for example. Social revolution tends to break apart these tyrannies; decline produces new variants. The pervasive surveillance and tendency towards bureaucratic speech controls of this century so far are indicators that the process is well underway in our day.
The global situation in the immediate present, meanwhile, is one of acute danger of war between Iran and the United States, along with their respective proxies - the state of affairs that got poor old Tom Pope into trouble. Though the immediate cause of the current crisis is a typically Trumpian piece of crisis-manufacture, the ground is long prepared for a further phase of bloodshed in the region. Any such showdown, meanwhile, is likely to involve Israel, whose ruling regime has done its level best to push successive US administrations into a military confrontation with Tehran (the fact that the White House held out for so long is the ultimate disproof of the ‘Israel lobby’ theory of US foreign policy). The delegitimisation of anti-Zionism has always ultimately been about subservience to US policy, but that question is now posed very sharply by Donald Trump’s adventurism.
Finally, there are events in our own backyard: the end of the Corbyn era in the Labour Party, and the opportunity to replace him with a ‘safe pair of hands’ who will not question foreign office doctrine; and simultaneously the election of a far-right Tory government with a thumping majority, in all likelihood adding Britain to the list of countries - usually headed by Russia, Hungary and so on - on the road to ‘illiberal democracy’, and thus a sharply more authoritarian policy towards leftwing opposition. That so often - certainly in the three countries just named - such governments appeal clearly to anti-Semitic tropes is ironic, but not a contradiction in any important way. National chauvinism is about aesthetic rather than logical coherence, and so it is adequately consistent for Viktor Orbán (for example) to use anti-Semitic election propaganda at the same time as building a close friendship with Bibi Netanyahu.
Here it is worth emphasising that something is going on. The rhetoric of the panic-mongers is laughably overheated. Cavendish finds, in the Hampstead fiasco, “chilling echoes” of the Nazi habit of defacing Jewish businesses - but conspicuous by their absence, in comparison with those heady days, are million-strong paramilitary forces, a background of military humiliation, a state core riddled with anti-Semitism, and powerful churches also committed in practice to persecution of Jews. In short, the comparison is absurd. Yet there is this echo: fascism is a product of determinate historical forces, including the aforementioned wars, crumbling reactionary elites, etc. Likewise, we cannot view as purely random noise the resurgence of this old reactionary obsession. The connection, for example, between the present US government and the new enthusiasm among the anti-Semitic far right in that country is surely no accident, even if Trump cannot himself be identified with those forces.
It is surely not a stretch to point out that the same historical background has brought Johnson to power. He can still play-act at ‘liberal’ Toryism if he must, but the years since 2016 have been one long air on the dog-whistle for our PM. He knew what he was doing; and he must have known that, in the foam of the far-right wave he sought to ride, there were some very unpleasant ideas. Whether there will be a truly substantial revival of anti-Semitism, whatever Camilla Cavendish thinks about it, remains to be seen; Muslims provide a more timely target for chauvinist prejudice on the whole. The point stands: for the government to go on about ‘hatred’, to appoint an “anti-Semitism tsar” (what a beautiful phrase!) in the person of the ex-Labour idiot John Mann, while riding this wave, is nothing more than the most contemptible hypocrisy.
The left, unfortunately, has let them get away with it - so far. Leftwing anti-racism has for so long been reduced to shrill moralism that it has now ceased to exercise any discernment between true and false anti-racism. We have been on the back foot over the bogus anti-Semitism scandal from the get-go. The left’s other great sin - short-termism - has also made problems for us. Within Labour, vote-losing arguments about Zionism and foreign-office loyalism were ignored or dismissed in the hope of getting into government on a narrowly ‘economic’ programme; outside Labour, sects like the Socialist Workers Party prioritised getting as many people as possible on their anti- racist demonstrations, which meant ignoring the issue outside of the odd article in their papers. Between our different opportunisms, we allowed the slanders to stand unopposed.
Above all, we have let the right, the bourgeois media and the state core get away with redefining anti-Semitism, such that all criticism of Zionism is effectively under the pre-publication censorship of those with an interest in the Israeli state’s continued vitality. Chief among them, in the end, is not Netanyahu - never mind the Jewish cabals of anti-Semitic fantasy - but the global hegemon, and its esteemed commander in chief. With the Middle East balanced on a knife edge, this could matter an awful lot, very soon indeed.
Whatever the outcome of that crisis, a rather less pleasant environment for the principled left looms in the coming years.