The roots of the “new antisemitism” narrative

With kind permission of Bookmarks, we publish here an excerpt from the pamphlet, “Antisemitism, the far right, Zionism and the left” by Rob Ferguson, first published in 2018.

In this extract Rob examines the roots of the “new antisemitism” narrative that has underpinned the attack against Corbyn, the wider left and the Palestinian solidarity movement since 2016. He locates the specific attack on Jeremy Corbyn in the UK in the context of wider international developments since 1967 and particularly from the early 2000s.

The pamphlet of which this only a part, also covers the roots of modern antisemitism as an ideology of reaction; Islamophobia, antisemitism and the rise of the right; antisemitism as a problem for anti-racists, the left and Muslim communities; Corbyn, antisemitism and the witch hunt. Finally, Rob draws conclusions on how the left should both resist the attack on Corbyn and the left, while forging unity against the threat from the far right.

The pamphlet can be ordered from Bookmarks here.

The roots of the “new antisemitism” narrative

Rob Ferguson, Bookmarks 2018

The attack on the left: the “new antisemitism” 1967-2000

While antisemitism is growing on the far right in Europe and the US, the anti-imperialist left has been subjected to a deluge of accusations of antisemitism for its opposition to the State of Israel that has far outweighed criticism of antisemitism on the right. These accusations are not new; however, they have acquired new force.

The narrative of a “new antisemitism” has its origins in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. Its core thesis was that opposition to the State of Israel, emanating from the anti-imperialist left, the Palestinian liberation movement and the Arab nationalist regimes, constituted a new form of antisemitism.

In one of the first works, The New Antisemitism, the authors, Arnold Forster and Benjamin Epstein, made their case in absolute terms: “In its assault on Israel’s right to exist, the radical left engages in what is perhaps the ultimate antisemitism”.[1] Forster and Epstein, both Anti-Defamation League leaders, were reacting to the radicalisation of the late 1960s and what they saw as growing political isolation of Israel. The anti-Vietnam War movement, the events of May 1968 in France, the rise of the Black Power movement and anti-colonial struggles in Africa transformed the political attitudes of a generation.

Abba Eban, a key figure behind the 1948 UN partition agreement in Palestine, and Israeli foreign minister, laid out the case in typically clear terms:

Recently we have witnessed the rise of the new left, which identifies Israel with the establishment… Let there be no mistake: the new left is the author and the progenitor of the new antisemitism. One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all. Anti-Zionism is merely the new antisemitism. The old classic antisemitism declared that equal rights belong to all individuals within the society, except the Jews. The new antisemitism says that the right to establish and maintain an independent national sovereign state is the prerogative of all nations, so long as they happen not to be Jewish. And when this right is exercised not by the Maldive Islands, not by the state of Gabon, not by Barbados…but by the oldest and most authentic of all nationhoods, then this is said to be exclusivism, particularism, and a flight of the Jewish people from its universal mission.[2]

These arguments have run like a thread through the intervening decades. The attack by Eban on the anti-imperialist left four decades ago now has its echo in the attack on Corbyn, marked out for his own leading role in the anti-war movement.

In the 1977 elections in Israel Menachem Begin broke three decades of Labour Zionist government, leading the right-wing Likud to victory. This marked a further breach in left support. Begin had been leader of the Irgun terror gangs that massacred 250 civilians at the village of Deir Yassin in 1948. He embarked on a major expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, launching the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. This and Israeli complicity in the massacre of refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps led Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and a large number of Labour MPs to resign from Labour Friends of Israel (although Benn never abandoned support for a “two-state” solution). By the early 1980s the post-war support for Israel was breaking down.

In 1984 Robert Wistrich, a long-standing exponent of the notion of a “new antisemitism”, gave a lecture at the home of Chaim Herzog, president of Israel. Wistrich rehearsed the themes articulated by Eban a decade before. He claimed campaigns against the Jewish state could be “compared to the threat posed to Jews by Nazism in the period of its upsurge”. Wistrich was particularly concerned at the number of young Jews who were becoming critical of Israel. Like Eban, he argued that the damage to Israel’s image had its origins in the New Left, making specific reference to the radical left in Britain (especially “Trotskyists”)[3]: “Anti-Zionism has in the past 15 to 20 years, gradually become an integral part of the cultural code of many Leftist and some liberal circles—an enemy on a par with imperialism, racism and militarism—and invariably identified with these evils”.[4] While Wistrich conceded it would be wrong to “stick the label of antisemitism on all forms of anti-Zionism”, he insisted on the “basic continuity between classical antisemitism and contemporary anti-Zionism”.

The pro-Zionist position came under further pressure with the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 when Palestinian youth took to the streets to be met with the deliberate “broken bones” policy of the Israeli forces. Almost 30,000 children required medical treatment; over 1,000 Palestinians were killed. The end of the Intifada and the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords saw a degree of consensus emerge around the question of a “two state solution”. This was shattered by the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel’s defeat at the hands of Hizbollah and withdrawal from Lebanon in 2006, and the rise of Hamas.

2000 to the present: the “new antisemitism” reforged

However, the Second Intifada was set against 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “new antisemitism” narrative now took on altogether different proportions. From 2000 onwards its proponents identified “radical Islam” as an existential threat not only to the State of Israel but to Western liberal values on a global scale. For the pro-imperialist camp, Israel was now on the front line.

The contemporary roots of Islamophobia lie in the period following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the rising influence of Islamist movements.[5] In their wake, anti-Muslim prejudice became a dominant trope. As the late Edward Said noted, “malicious generalisations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West; what is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture as a whole cannot now be said in mainstream discussion about Africans, Jews, other Orientals, or Asians”.[6]

In 1986 the orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis published Semites and Antisemites, which in large part reworked the narratives of the 1970s but in which Lewis also addressed the “Islamisation” of antisemitism.[7] Lewis is an acclaimed scholar on Islam and the Middle East; he is a leading neoconservative, a confidant of several Israeli prime ministers including Ariel Sharon, and acted as adviser to George W Bush after 9/11. His writing has set a template for commentary that now fills the pages of Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic and innumerable other newspapers and journals. It is not incidental that Said devoted considerable space to systematically demolishing Lewis’s “Orientalist” stereotyping of Muslims and their religious, political and social life.

Lewis first raised the prospect of a “resurgent Islam” in 1976, at the onset of civil war in Lebanon. In an essay entitled “The Return of Islam”, Lewis concluded:

The basic question is this: Is a resurgent Islam prepared to tolerate a non-Islamic enclave, whether Jewish in Israel or Christian in Lebanon, in the heart of the Islamic world?… Islam from its inception is a religion of power, and in the Muslim worldview it is right and proper that power should be wielded by Muslims and Muslims alone… That Muslims should rule over non-Muslims is right and normal. That non-Muslims should rule over Muslims is an offence against the laws of God and nature.[8]

By 1990 Lewis was writing of “Islamic fundamentalism” as a war against secularism and modernity. There was something in Islamic religious culture, he wrote, that inspired “an explosive mixture of hate and rage”. Lewis coined a phrase later picked up by Samuel Huntington: “This is no less than a clash of civilisations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both”.[9] As Edward Said observes, “All of Lewis’s emphases…are to portray the whole of Islam as basically outside the known, familiar, acceptable world that ‘we’ inhabit, and in addition that contemporary Islam has inherited European antisemitism for use in an alleged war against modernity”.[10]

By 2002 Lewis was advocating full-blown war. In an article for The Wall Street Journal, “Time for Toppling”, Lewis wrote that “the dictatorships that rule much of the Middle East today will not, indeed cannot, make peace, because they need conflict to justify their tyrannical oppression of their own people and to deflect their peoples’ anger against an external enemy…real peace will come only with their defeat”.[11]

Lewis encapsulates the direction of travel of the “new antisemitism” narrative. Eight days after 9/11 he addressed the US Defence Policy Board, headed by Richard Perle, to argue for a military takeover of Iraq in order to avert the threat of further terrorism.[12]

It is difficult to convey the sheer flood of books, journal articles, newspaper and online commentary on “the new antisemitism” since 2003. The originators span Cold War ideologues, historians, pro-war liberals, Labour MPs, French “nouveaux philosophes”, Zionists, prominent figures in the Jewish community, feminists and innumerable commentators and columnists ranging from raving right wingers such as Melanie Phillips to liberals such as Jonathan Freedland. It is only possible here to indicate some of the more “articulate” sources. There is a mass of “polemical” writing, bordering on hysteria, which depicts an unholy alliance of the “extreme left” and Islamic fundamentalists united around a common platform of antisemitism and “anti-Americanism”. Examples include work by best-selling feminist Phyllis Chesler and former head of the Anti Defamation League Abe Foxman.[13] I will confine myself to some examples that encapsulate the political trajectory.

One of the most influential writers on the theme is French philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff, who has produced a range of work, most notably La Nouvelle Judeophobie in 2002, translated into English as Rising from the Muck: The New Antisemitism in Europe.[14] Taguieff begins with the Israel-Palestine conflict, arguing that any solution first requires the “de-Islamisation” of the Palestinian national movement. He argues that Islamism is a global peril in which the Palestinians have become the standard-bearers for the enemies of democracy and the west.[15] However, the crux of Taguieff’s narrative is when he brings it “home”:

We note a strange and disturbing blindness of political circles (particularly on the left) likewise of the French media, towards the new expressions of anti-Jewish hatred, especially when these are bound up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are partly attributable to certain populations from Maghrebian and African immigrant background—in short, when they appear to be the act of “youth from the banlieues”, a good part of whom remain impervious to the norms of republican integration.[16]

Taguieff’s trajectory is an exemplar of a common narrative. He moves from the Israel-Palestine conflict and Hamas suicide-bombers to a worldwide Islamist threat; from there it is a short step to Muslim youth on the outskirts of French cities. The narrative of the “new antisemitism” has been weaponised by the “war on terror”. It is now one of the cornerstones of a wider narrative deployed by the tribunes of military intervention abroad and “counter-extremism” strategies at home.

Islamophobia has rushed through the gates. One sometimes has to catch one’s breath at the depth to which this has sunk. Renowned historian Walter Laqueur fearfully compares declining “native” populations in Germany, Italy and Spain to a population explosion in the Maghreb, Egypt, Turkey and Iran. Laqueur concludes that within a few decades Jewish communities in European cities “will exist in a largely or even predominantly Muslim milieu”.[17]

Laqueur argues that anti-capitalism, anti-globalisation and “anti-Americanism” are the key ideological traits uniting the left and “radical Islam”, trumping other differences. He refers to the biggest international demonstrations in history as just “anti-American” and “anti-West” protests made up of the far-left and radical Islamists, replete with antisemitic slogans.

The purveyors of the “new antisemitism” narrative attempt a distinction between “radical Islam” and the majority of Muslims. The problem is this keeps breaking down. So Yehuda Bauer, Israeli historian and authority on the Holocaust, points to the 20 million Muslim immigrants in Europe, generously conceding that they “are not radical Islamists—yet”. Bauer cites Lewis’s assertion that Muslim civilisation failed to keep pace with the West: “The result is that today most Muslims live in abject poverty and have no chance to rise from vegetating in the gutters.” Thus “turning to a radical religious belief is their only way of gaining some self-esteem and feeling of identity”.[18] For Bauer, the “new antisemitism” is a genocidal threat to “universalist civilisation” embodied in Western democracy: “We are faced with a genocidal threat to the Jewish people, and then to others… Radical Islam does have a chance, and world civilisation must defend itself…the threat is genocidal… We must not repeat past mistakes”.[19]

In Britain leading proponents of military intervention on the Blairite wing of the Labour Party have also seized upon the narrative. Thus Denis MacShane, in Globalising Hatred: The New Antisemitism, locates antisemitism as central to promoting world terror:

We have seen life-threatening antisemitism return with a vengeance. Thousands have been killed across the globe as men, women, even children, and organisations powered by an ideology to which antisemitism is central and essential have decided to unleash unprecedented assaults on democracy. In Bali and Istanbul, in Egypt and Madrid, in New York and London, people driven by antisemitic hate along with other hates have killed, killed and killed again in the name of a cause that hates Jews.[20]

As former minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and British delegate to the Council for Europe, MacShane is a long-standing advocate of Western military intervention.

MacShane was previously chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism. Prior to his imprisonment for fraudulent expenses claims in 2013 he appeared alongside the current chair, John Mann, as a witness in a case brought against the University and College Union (UCU) for its policy of boycotting links with Israeli universities. The judge dismissed the case against the UCU in a judgement that was highly critical of both Mann and MacShane.[21]

MacShane and Mann (both non-Jews) represent the widening of the “new antisemitism” narrative into the Labour mainstream. Mann went on to play a central role in the manufactured attack on Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left. In Corbyn they faced a Labour leader who was a principled socialist, a leading figure of the anti-war movement and supporter of Palestinian rights. For the Labour right, the “new antisemitism” narrative was an ideal weapon in the struggle against him.

“New antisemitism” and its consequences

The “new antisemitism” narrative has potentially severe political consequences. In France representatives of CRIF (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France), have played down the threat from the FN, presenting left anti-Zionism and Muslim youth as the greater threat.[22] The French government has even banned pro-Palestinian protests. Despite this, in September 2018, CRIF leader, Francis Kalifat, called on the French government to incorporate the IHRA definition of antisemitism into French law, declaring, “Today, the main vector for antisemitism is anti-Zionism”.[23] In Britain former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and current Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis played a prominent role in the onslaught on Corbyn and the left. Sachs compared comments by lifelong anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn to Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968.[24] Sachs’ comparison is not only a vicious slander but utterly diminishes the wave of violence fuelled by Powell and the boost he gave to the Nazis of the National Front. Hyperbole reached new heights when the editors of three Jewish newspapers published a joint front page editorial claiming that a Corbyn-led government would pose an “existential threat” to Jewish life in Britain.[25]

Attempts to impose the IHRA definition of antisemitism represent an instrumentalisation of definitions of antisemitism in order to delegitimise opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinians. In December 2016 Theresa May adopted what had been only a “working definition of antisemitism” by the IHRA[26] as guidance for the Crown Prosecution Service. The definition’s criteria for identifying antisemitism include: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.

Even the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism chaired by John Mann at first declined to pursue formal adoption of this definition in February 2015, recognising that it had become “a topic of controversy rather than consensus”.[27] The definition had also been considered too problematic for the European Union Monitoring Committee (EUMC) and its successor the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) to be adopted formally. However, May’s breakthrough came courtesy of Corbyn’s Labour opponents on the Home Affairs Select Committee led by Chuka Umunna, who recommended that the definition be used to provide a legislative basis for identifying antisemitism in October 2016. Two mild guarantees on free expression proposed by the Select Committee were dismissed as unnecessary by May.[28]

Although May might have taken advantage of Corbyn’s opponents’ opportunism, Britain’s adoption of the IHRA “working definition” reflects a wider ideological and political agenda on the part of the main European powers. It is important, however, to make some points about their content.

There is a long-standing debate in academic and political literature over the nature of the State of Israel. The position that Israel is a colonial-settler state, and thus structurally “racist”, is one that has been substantively articulated by historians as well as political activists and writers, including Jews and Palestinians.[29] This is, of course, open to debate but to define such a position as “antisemitic” is nothing short of a calculated attack on free speech and democratic expression. It is also the case that anti-Zionism has been an important current among Jews ever since the birth of political Zionism in the late nineteenth century; indeed Zionism was very much a minority political current among European Jewry until the Holocaust.

The second claim is that “double standards” are applied to Israel that are not applied to other states. This is utterly cynical and ignores the fact that Israel is founded on the dispossession of the Palestinians. There is a long tradition on the left of taking up causes at the fulcrum of international struggles and which reflect wider patterns of imperialist domination in which our own rulers are deeply implicated. This was true of the Spanish civil war, French Algeria, Chile, apartheid South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, east Timor, the Irish struggle and Vietnam to list only a few. In fact, far from a “double standard” being applied, support for the Palestinian struggle lies in a long tradition of anti-colonial independence struggles. It is the pro-Zionists who demand that Israel be treated as an exception.

One consequence of this attempt to delegitimise debate and protest is to sow division in the face of the real threat from the right. Despite declarations of opposition to Islamophobia and bigotry, the proponents of the “new antisemitism” narrative cast Muslims, the left and the most reactionary racists in the same camp. This can only help clear a path down which fascists and racists can tread.

One final and crucial point needs to be made in this respect; the “new antisemitism” narrative acts as an ideological support for the very forces of imperialism and war that create the terrain for fascism to grow. We therefore face a challenge of a high order.


[1] Forster and Epstein, 1974.

[2] Eban, 1973, pxxv.

[3] Socialist Worker Party founder Tony Cliff, himself a Palestinian Jew, played an instrumental role in arguing the anti-Zionist case in Britain. His classic pamphlet “The Middle East at the Crossroads” was written in 1945. See also Cliff, 1982.

[4] Wistrich, 1984

[5] For a classic analysis of the rise of Islamism see Harman, 1994.

[6] Said, 1997, Kindle location 63.

[7] Lewis, 1999.

[8] Lewis, 1976.

[9] Lewis, 1990.

[10] Said, 1997, Kindle location 352.

[11] Lewis, 2002.

[12] Waldman, 2004.

[13] Chesler, 2003; Foxman, 2003.

[14] Taguieff, 2004.

[15] Taguieff, 2004, pp9-10.

[16] Taguieff, 2004, p1.

[17] Laqueur, 2006, Kindle location 256-259.

[18] Bauer, 2009, p322.

[19] Bauer, 2009, pp325-326.

[20] MacShane, 2008, Kindle location 36.

[21] Elgot, 2013; Court and Tribunals Judiciary, 2013.

[22] Zaretsky, 2012.

[23] Crif, 2018.

[24] Mirvis, 2016; Sacks, 2016; Walker 2018.

[25] Rawlinson and Crerar, 2018.

[26] The IHRA itself acts as something of a camouflage. Its signatories include several European states whose governing parties promote antisemitism and historical revisionism.

[27] All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, 2015, p12.

[28] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2016, p11; Department for Communities and Local Government, 2016, p4

[29] There is a wide corpus of writing on this subject, one classic text being Rodinson, 1973. For an excellent analysis of the Labour Party record see John Newsinger’s article in the previous issue of this journal—Newsinger, 2017.

Comments (3)

  • Excellent article, at least from a historical perspective. I would challenge the assertion that the attacks on Corbyn ‘have their historical roots in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973’. The fact is that authors of these accusations are evidently not literate or informed enough even to understand that argument. The present spate of attacks on Corbyn and other radical members of the left of Labour (interestingly more radical left-wing groups have no come in for this type of attack) are sponsored very deliberately. They are the product of an authentic awareness that Capitalism is about to collapse and that this will pose a radical challenge to existing relationships to neoliberal regimes and their financial resources (reduction if not complete alienation from Israel). There is in this sense little to distinguish the class interests of Israel’s wealthy and powerful elites from those of others in the UK and US. The accusations of anti-semitism are spurious and can be disproved easily. They would not stand up in a Court of Law. And they have no been adopted by the many; most ordinary people could not give a toss and certainly do not understand them, let alone know their history. What does have a history is the equation of Israel as a state with Jews. But even here, the lie must constantly be repeated because it simply does not stand up to logical scrutiny. The number of accusations of anti-semitism against members of Labour is inflated by mainstream media. But the actual number of people who credit such accusations with any veracity is almost insignificant. The problem is that Jews who do support these accusations even though they are aware of their exaggerated nature are effectively undermining their own credibility, and by association that of the entire Jewish community.

  • Anthony Baldwin says:

    A very good appraisal of the article and its arguments.
    I would, however, take issue with the excessive bias placed in the article on the resistance shown to Israeli ‘creeping’ subjugation of the Palestinians in Gaza, East Jerusalem, the rest of Israel and the Occupied Territories as an explanation of Israel’s continued acts of aggression. The Zionist plan was always to carry on what is essentially ethnic cleansing whatever the reactions of the Palestinian, Druze, Christian or other population groups such as the Samaritans happened to be.
    My other question concerns the effectiveness of the AS attacks on Labour and their ‘almost insignificant’ impact. I don’t think that Ken Livingstone, Tony greenstein, Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth and the who knows how many Labour Party members who have been removed from the Labour Party or live under a sword of Damocles warning that another ‘offence’ will see them too thrown out.
    Since those who have been warned have to live with an eighteen month sentence with no apparent right to appeal whilst being told that the anonymous complaint has been upheld certainly isn’t insignificant when it is under an implicit threat of ‘make this public and you are in breach of Rule ‘Catch 22’ in the Labour rule Book.
    Many members of the Labour Party value other aspects of their membership to put their heads over the parapet in this McCarthy like situation and those of us who do live in the knowledge that the fatal e-mail could arrive any day.

  • Rob Ferguson says:

    Thanks to Anthony and Daniel for the kind comments. Just in case others are confused Anthony’s reference to “almost insignificant” impact is in response to an observation by Daniel, and not from my piece!

    On a couple of other clarifications and points

    – Of course in a very direct sense those who are prosecuting this attack on Corbyn may indeed lack a sense of history. My concern however is to place the wider narrative from which this attack flows in its historical context and crucially the way in which that narrative has become systematically instrumentalised, consciously or otherwise since the early 2000s.

    – I think it is a mistake to see the character of the current Israeli offensive against Palestinians as simply the fulfillment of a plan set in 1948 or before. For two decades after 1948 the colonial settler project was relatively stable, albeit punctuated by the Suez crisis, partly within the parameters of the Cold War. As however, Palestinian resistance mounted in 1967 with the emergence of the PLO, the 1970s saw the crisis of Labour Zionism and the victory of Likud and the invasion of Lebanon and the exile of the PLO to Tunis. With the 1st intifada, Israel and the imperialist powers sought a means of drawing in sections of the Palestinian leadership and others. This was blown apart by the second intifada, the victory of Hamas and crucially the Arab revolutions – a process that they fear rightly is not over, despite the defeats.

    It is the decline of US power, however, manifested above all in the catastrophe of interventions in Iraq and the wider Middle East that drives the assault on the part of the US itself, its allies and of course Israel. Israel has in my view never been more important to imperialism than now. In these conditions the settler colonial population and the Israeli state resorts to ever more extreme forms of openly declared racism, oppression and violence.

    The same process was true in French Algiers and apartheid South Africa as they entered ever deeper crisis under challenge. Unlike these examples, the major imperialist powers cannot jettison the State of Israel without deepening the crisis of imperialism in the middle east on a colossal scale. On the other side, the Palestinian resistance can inspire wider struggles but whilst it cannot be crushed, it cannot defeat the might of Israel and its imperialist backers on their own.

    – I am afraid it is just not true that the attack on the left is “the product of an authentic awareness that Capitalism is about to collapse”. That is simply a) not what they think b) untrue – capitalism will not collapse of its own accord

Comments are now closed.