The left faces a challenging battle in the fight against allegations of antisemitism over coming months. The attacks did not end with Labour’s election defeat or Jeremy Corbyn’s departure as leader. Indeed, the probusiness and pro-imperialist wing of the party is stepping up its onslaught. This is an attack that extends to the entire left. A huge responsibility will fall upon the left to face this onslaught in a principled fashion, and to expose the false conflation between anti-Zionism and antisemitism that lies at the core of the allegations.
One of the dangers of the conflation is to obscure the real threat of rising antisemitism driven by the far right. Thus, the politics at stake are critical. It is important not to fall into the same trap as the well-known Jewish, anti-Zionist academic Norman Finkelstein during an online meeting supported by Labour Against the Witchhunt on 28 July. His contribution allowed the Jewish Chronicle — a virulent mouthpiece of the anti-Corbyn campaign — to run the headline: “Norman Finkelstein praises Holocaust denier David Irving at proCorbyn group meeting”. Finkelstein had claimed that David Irving was “a very good historian”. From the 1970s, Irving styled himself as the intellectual leader of Europe’s Nazi movement, using Holocaust denial to clear the path for fascist movements.
He was exposed as a falsifier of history after bringing a libel case against historian Deborah Lipstadt for comments she made in her 1994 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Finkelstein’s comments on Irving were not, unfortunately, a clumsy formulation. He has made the claim before. In the July meeting he argued, “I don’t see the reason to get excited about Holocaust deniers. First of all I don’t know what a Holocaust denier even is” — a shocking statement from the son of Holocaust survivors. Finkelstein has been given a platform by some on the left as an anti-Zionist Jewish academic.
He has made a speciality of debunking pseudo-academic pro-Israeli propaganda works, including From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters and The Case For Israel by Alan Dershowitz. However, in a review of Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry, in this magazine 20 years ago, I noted: “Tragically, Finkelstein’s years of political confrontation with the pro-Israeli Jewish establishment in the US have distorted his judgement and produced a book that does more harm than good.” That lack of judgement was again on display at this recent meeting.
We can’t afford mistakes such as these. There needs to be an assertive campaign against spurious allegations that the left is driving antisemitism and argue remorselessly against the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. We need to be precise about the language we use when talking about Israel and the Middle East. We need to fight all forms racism, including Islamophobia and antisemitism, and put the struggle for Palestinian liberation back on the political agenda.
In doing so, we can begin to win arguments with young Jews who hate racism and fear the real rise in antisemitism. Many are appalled by the behaviour of Israel but hold illusions in a separate Jewish homeland as a sanctuary of last resort. We have to uphold the Jewish socialist tradition that insists the fate of the Jews, as for all oppressed groups, is inextricably tied to the struggle of an international working class.