Identity Politics, Racism and Confusion11
17/04/2016 by socialistfight
The idea that Tony Greenstein, the Jewish leftist in Brighton recently suspended from the Labour Party apparently for ‘anti-semitism’, has to prove that he is not ‘anti-semitic’ should be just absurd. It is a sign of the irrationality and demented character of the political atmosphere in and around the Labour Party, with the party leadership under extreme pressure from Zionist witchhunters, that a long time Jewish left-wing activist like Greenstein should feel obliged to ‘prove’ he is not an anti-Jewish racist.
One wonders how many black members of the Labour Party face suspension expulsion for anti-black racism, or how many of Chinese heritage face suspension for anti-Chinese bigotry? If there were such, it would make the Labour Party into the butt of stand-up comedy, not of serious political controversy. The fact that this can even be conceived in Labour is only due to the irrational nonsense peddled by Zionist racists within and without the Labour Party, that those who fail to support the Zionist project are motivated by anti-semitism (anti-Jewish racism), and that those Jews who do this are ‘self-hating Jews’. But in the absence of oppression, allegations of ‘self-hatred’ (which if it existed would simply stem from internalised oppression) are themselves a racist slur, denying the right of people of Jewish origin to choose a non-Zionist form of Jewish identity, or even to reject Jewish identity altogether, as ways to oppose the virulently racist form of ‘Jewishness’ embodied in political Zionism.
The latter accusation shows the far right, racist character of Zionism even in the Labourite context, as the ‘self-hater’ epithet, also sometimes rendered as ‘Jewish anti-semite’, is identical to the epithet ‘race traitor’ used by the white far right in the main imperialist countries. It really shows that Zionists constitute a far-right fifth column in the Labour Party, as an agency of a racist state whose followers would be quite prepared to act as instigators of the same kind of fascist-like repression against workers organisations that Israel does against Palestinians in the Middle East if they felt it necessary.
We in Socialist Fight are ourselves facing blood libels from Zionists; our Marxist analysis of the Jewish question and Zionism today has been portrayed as akin to Nazism by bourgeois commentators and some on the so-called ‘far left’ have either joined in with this rubbish, or vacillated wildly in the face of the pressure from the bourgeoisie and the Zionists. We continue to demand all the socialist and Marxist left in and around the Labour Party engage in a principled United Front to defend each other from the right-wing and the Zionists, in which all tendencies stand together on the principle that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’, while retaining full freedom of debate.
A Jewish supporter of Socialist Fight provided us with a pretty sharp commentary on the nonsense being thrown at SF and others by all kinds of Zionists and capitulators to it. She wrote
“It seems to me although you are not Anti-Semitic (not all Jews are Semitic although I am) most of your critics are whether in a blatant or covert way. Do they actually know that Israel is an artificial concept? I have been called a self-hating Jew many times on what evidence I do not know. However once again I would like to say you are defined a Jew if:
“1. You have a Jewish mother. This does not make you a Semite as a considerable amount of East Europeans converted to the Jewish religion.
2. If you convert this of course does not make you a Semite.
“As many Muslims are Semitic surely that makes the Zionists anti-Semitic. So using Zionist logic I, a Semite who supports my Palestinian cousins who are also Semite, am anti-Semitic. However Zionists of all stripes who may and often are not Semites but support the state of Israel in whatever they do legal or illegal cannot be anti-Semitic. THIS DOES NOT MAKE SENSE.”
If it is absurd for Tony Greenstein to have to prove he is not anti-semitic, it is just as absurd for the Israeli-Jewish-born Jazz Saxophonist Gilad Atzmon to have to prove such either. Neither of them would have to prove any such thing in a rational world, since both of them have similar ethnic origins – they are both Jewish by birth. Its only in the world of the Zionist-dominated body politic that we live under that people of Jewish origin have to prove that they are not anti-semitic, i.e. that they do not hate their own people purely for the ethnic origins that they share. In fact, by sleight of hand, the Zionists have expanded the definition of ‘anti-semitism’ so that you do not have to hate people of Jewish origin in general to be so accused. It’s enough to express disgust at Zionist crimes, or attempt to analyse the way Zionists organise politically to stamp on opposition to those crimes, to be accused of ‘anti-semitism’ today. This does have the effect of devaluing the meaning of the term.
Tony Greenstein, in trying to prove that he is not anti-semitic, i.e. that he is not a witch to the Labour Zionist witchhunters, has flip-flopped (not for the first time) over the long contentious issue of Gilad Atzmon, Previously, in the course of some uncharacteristically fraternal debates with Socialist Fight, where he repeated his usual nonsense about ‘anti-semitism’, he had in a sly but somewhat ‘soft’ tweet intimated that he did not consider either ourselves or Atzmon to be Jew-haters in a personal sense. At the time he was trying to reconcile the obvious fact that Socialist Fight comrades are active and militant anti-racists with the elements of genuine anti-Zionism that we share with Atzmon – the willingness to analyse, criticise and expose the international dimension of Zionism. He believes that to believe that Zionism is a Jewish bourgeois international movement is to be ‘anti-semitic’, yet we are obviously not racists at all; anyone who knows us or is not blinded by class or race prejudices can see that. So he looked for a way to resolve this contradiction in his own ideology and came up with this in the course of a Twitter exchange with me:
He was obviously getting carried away by the objective need in this situation for a United Front of those anti-Zionist socialists under the gun of the Zionists, feeling the pressure enough to deviate somewhat from his previously virulent hostility to Socialist Fight, and Gerry Downing and myself in particular. Which is why he tweeted this at me as part of a reasonably political exchange.
Unfortunately, this tangled him up in some pretty acute contradictions given his decade-long campaign to ostracise Atzmon from the left, but also to vilify anyone else in the left who did not join in his anathema. The sophistry involved with Enoch Powell in the above tweet is pretty transparent. Blacks and Asians who have suffered from racial abuse and violence from Powell supporters would probably regard the idea that Powell was not personally racist as absurd and somewhat offensive. Tony is not stupid, he knows that this is a fig-leaf that no-one honest will take seriously (see my deconstruction of this in my recent article Zionism’s International Dimension: Revolutionary Strategy).
But Greenstein does not have a settled position on Atzmon, just a gut antipathy that does not have a coherent theory behind it. This is why his writings are so full of bluster and contradiction when this comes up. He has now received help from the Zionist blogger BobFromBrockley, who helpfully provided him with a tweet Atzmon sent in 2014, in response to some Zionist twitter warrior.
According to Bob from Brockley, this tweet is suppposed to prove that Atzmon is a racial anti-semite, that he hates all Jews for racist reasons, which is really the implied meaning of any allegation of anti-semitism.
But though it looks bad at first sight, and is certainly a foolish and self-defamatory thing to tweet, something does not add up about the allegation that it represents ‘racist’ anti-semitism. The obvious point is the phrase ‘I am not a Jew anymore’. No ‘racial’ anti-semite could ever say that or believe that. It would as absurd as to say ‘I am not a black person’ any more. That is not the way the world works. You cannot change your ethnic origin any more than you can change your skin colour. Nor is there any suggestion that this is about the Jewish religion, Atzmon is not markedly either religious or anti-religious and is not hostile to anti-Zionist religious Jews. In fact, he has more regard for them than he does for many anti-Zionist secular Jews.
Twitter is a notoriously difficult medium to communicate nuance. It does appear that this tweet was simply a response in a heated exchange to a noxious Zionist troll who was subsequently suspended from Twitter for threatening violence against George Galloway. Who of course had been beaten badly by an ultra-Zionist thug only a few months earlier. I doubt that would bother Bob From Brockley much. But I am sure it would bother Tony Greenstein.
The tweets of OnePoundOne are no longer available, as his account was suspended as a result of these threats. But it seems obvious that if such a odious person as this had malevolently purported to appeal to Atzmon as a “fellow Jew”, he would likely have received a pungent response like this. All this really means is that Twitter is extraordinarily easy to quote out of context.
I commented on what is behind this kind of verbiage from Atzmon a while ago on the Socialist Unity blog, when I wrote:
“He divides Jews into three categories: religious Jews, people simply of Jewish origin, and people who regard their Jewishness as a political identity. These are not mutually exclusive, but they are separate and separable strands. He says his materials are actually only criticisms of the third strand or category.”
“He does tend to use ‘Jew’, ‘Jewish’ and ‘Jewishness’ too freely as shorthand for the third strand, which causes confusion and makes it easy to misunderstand him and/or quote him out of context. He seems to enjoy the heated arguments that result from such things, which is a flaw in my opinion, and sometimes generates more heat than light.”
This was another example of the left’s inability to deal with Atzmon and people like him, and to get their heads around the fact that thanks to the sheer barbarism of Israel’s crimes, there are now people of Jewish origin who are so disgusted by being involuntarily associated with them that they express extreme disgust at being born and brought up Jewish. This thread was supposedly defending George Galloway from his Zionist tormentors on Question Time. I was excluded from SU by Socialist Unity’s erratic honcho Andy Newman for agreeing with Galloway’s defence of and sympathetic interview with Atzmon on Sputnik. The irony of this is incredible. If Galloway had posted comments defending his defence of Atzmon in a thread supposedly defending Galloway, he would logically have been excluded too!
One might wish Gilad Atzmon would be more careful in his use of language. But from his standpoint, since he is of Jewish origin anyway, he does not see the need.
Atzmon shares much with Shlomo Sand on the substance of this, though not in style. Sand wrote last year:
“How, in these conditions, can individuals who are not religious believers but simply humanists, democrats and liberals, and endowed with a minimum of honesty, continue to define themselves as Jews? In these conditions, can the descendants of the persecuted let themselves be embraced in the tribe of new secular Jews who see Israel as their exclusive property? Is not the very act of defining yourself as a Jew an act of affiliation to a privileged caste which creates intolerable injustices around itself?” (How I Stopped Being a Jew, 2015 p87)”
Atzmon’s version of this is somewhat similar, as revealed recently in an article criticising the politics of Michael Rosen, another leftist of Jewish origin who insists on ‘self-identifying’ as Jewish in a political, not merely an ethnic sense. Rosen produced a short posting on ‘anti-semitism’ in the Labour Party, demanding a ‘strong united left’ to ‘protect’ Jews from anti-semitism:
“Anti-semites would identify me as Jewish. (I self-identify that way too, but let’s leave that to one side for the moment).
“Given that’s what anti-semites do, on occasions I have to ask myself, who I would turn to for assistance in the case of unwarranted attacks, persecution, harassment or pogroms?” (cited at http://www.gilad.co.uk/writings/2016/4/9/michael-rosen-and-the-kosher-san)
Atzmon’s response is pungent, but it does clarify exactly what he rejects about “Jewishness” on the one hand, and what he does not and cannot reject:
“According to Rosen, anti Semites will identify him as Jewish, then in the same line, he writes that he “self-identif[ies] that way too.” So according to Rosen, the anti Semites are actually correct in identifying Rosen as what he is, that is, a Jew
“But Rosen then claims that those who identify him as what he declares himself to be are anti Semites. I wonder, since Rosen identifies himself as a Jew, how does he know that he isn’t himself an anti Semite? Are there some criteria?
“Rosen’s Jewishness is an odd entitlement. He is entitled to identify as a Jew while the rest of us are advised that identifying him as such turns us into ‘hate mongers.’
“In my writing I delve into Jewish Pre TSD. Jews are often tormented by a phantasmic traumatic event set in the future. No one exemplifies this mental condition better than the Jewish poet. ‘I have to ask myself, who would I turn to for assistance in the case of unwarranted attacks, persecution, harassment or pogroms?’ What persecution, what pogroms, Mr. Rosen? You are one of Britain most beloved children’s poets. You are not a Syrian refugee, no one calls to kick you out of the country. You are not the oppressed. Why do you feel the need to prepare for a pogrom? Is it guilt on your part? Are you hiding something?
“Let me tell you, Mr. Rosen, none of my Jewish friends are afraid of pogroms or ‘unwarranted attacks.’ In the eyes of the so called ‘anti Semites’ I should be seen as a Jew, my kids are also ethnically Jewish and yet, the fear that you describe in your statement is totally foreign to us. We are free of fear. We enjoy our lives, we listen to music, we love each other and pray for peace. What we don’t do is imagine the next pogrom. Is it because we do not identify politically as Jews?” (http://www.gilad.co.uk/writings/2016/4/9/michael-rosen-and-the-kosher-san)
This is very clarificatory about the substance of the debate between Atzmon and his left-wing, non-Zionist Jewish critics is about. It is not about ‘race’ or anything like it. It is rather about whether a progressive, non-Zionist non-religious Jewish identity is possible or even desirable. The heated conflict between Atzmon and his critics is mainly because he answers”No” to that question. It is a heresy hunt, in other words.
It is perfectly natural for those concerned with humanism and the like to find detestable something that ‘creates intolerable injustices around itself” in Sand’s words. Whether this is the correct political response is a subject for debate according to the norms of democracy that are part of the best traditions of the workers movement. What people like BobFromBrockley, who support the kind of ‘intolerable injustices’ Sand is talking about, have to say about this is less clear. Such people are hostile to workers democracy for opponents of Zionism. Greenstein, and people like him, who want to keep one foot in each camp over such democratic questions, are sooner or later going to have to make a choice.
We as Marxists do not take a definitive position on this. In our view, there is nothing inherently either good or bad about Jewish identity. Just as there is nothing inherently good or bad about being gay or lesbian, or identifying with any national or ethnic group. What we are for is freedom to choose, and opposing all discrimination and oppression not only against those who embody or embrace a particular identity, but also against those who reject such, provided they do not seek to violate the rights of others. This is separate from the question of Zionism, which is a racist project that oppresses the Palestinians and must be opposed down the line. The heresy hunt against Atzmon and the attempt to bully the left into ostracising him and those who are influenced by him is something we oppose tooth and nail because of our commitment to workers democracy and the right to free inquiry into questions of identity and related matters.
In terms of Marxism, it’s not entirely clear to me what “identity” means. It doesn’t seem to be anything more than an obfuscatory bit of bourgeois ideology.
I still haven’t read Atzmon, I suppose because what I’ve heard of his positions just seem to me too obvious to be interesting. Like rejecting Jewish identity. To use phrasing Ian has employed elsewhere, I’d think rejecting Jewish identity is elementary for Marxists. It should be easiest for historically cosmopolitan Jews.
More or less right. We are for the dissolution of all national and communal identities. This will be completed under Communism. It is unlikely they will simply disappear prior to the revolution though. We cannot insist on this now, but have to create the conditions for it in the future.
In the meantime,we have to address how to deal with such things as they are now. Directing fire at forms of identity that violate the rights of others, or which lead to crossing class lines, seems like the correct approach. We don’t demand that individuals give up such things as a precondition for the struggle. We promote unity in struggle as a way to undermine and expose illusions in identity politics.
Of course not. But I do demand this of someone calling himself a Marxist. To take one example: David Walters (known to this forum) calls himself a “Jewish-American.” As I’ve told him, I find this obscene. Like calling oneself a “White American.”
Well, I don’t find it offensive let alone obscene. Unless it signifies some kind of racist programme. I’m not bothered about Greenstein calling himself Jewish either. It’s his actions I oppose in witchhunting critics of Zionism’s international dimension, not his identity label per se. There is no reason why people of Jewish origin who still see themselves as Jewish should not be won to support our views. One is quoted above. What matters is positions in the real world, not formal identity.
Even the term ‘white American’ does not necessarily mean ‘white supremacist’. You have to go deeper than that.
It would surprise me to learn that the Jewish supporter of SF whom you quoted cultivates a Jewish identity. The quote merely speaks to how “Jew” is defined by Jews. You said somewhere that we had to go deeper, and that certainly seems the case in discussing “identity.” I would indeed be surprised that there is a single person who cultivates a “Jewish-American” identity who defends SF against charges of anti-Semitism. Greenstein’s stance was expected by anyone who understands what it means to cultivate a Jewish identity under today’s conditions.
This discussion has lacked a theory or even definition of “identity.” I won’t make up the slack in this comment, but I contend Jewish identity is an obstacle to class consciousness because it means (this is an empirical and rebuttable claim, I stress) that the person cultivating the identity looks at things, including the political, from the standpoind of being a Jew. It is inevitable that Jewish identity as today constituted means being concerned about what something means “for the Jews,” and taking one’s position, at least in part, on that basis. A Jewish identity is the essence of Jewish nationalism (just as “black identity” is inherently black nationalist – whether the group is oppressed affects the valence of the identitarianism, not the fact).
Could “Jewish identity” mean something else in another period? Trotsky did not necessarily disparage a commitment of Jews to develop Jewish culture, and that may perhaps be termed a Jewish “identity.” But it isn’t identity the way we speak of it today. The desire of people to live with others like themselves (say to avoid compounding the rudeness of life with petty cultural conflict) is not the same as identity. I’m confident that Trotsky would rudely dismiss anyone pretending to a Jewish “identity” in the sense that David Walters calls himself a Jewish-American. In fact, Walters would be apt to term someone like me, who despises identitarianism (whether overtly political or not) but sympathizes with the desire of the masses to live among those similar to them – why he (and probably you) would call _that_ impulse xenophobic!
I just saw David Walters’s letter to WW supporting Greenstein’s position.
I’ll resist saying I told you so.
Any “formal identity” divorced from positions in the real world is an ideological snare. Metaphysics isn’t harmless.
Moreover, it’s no accident that this “Jewish-American” libeled me (in this very forum) as a holocaust revisionist.
Stephen really reflects a common phenomenon among Jews who reject Jewishness. In rejecting Jewish identitiarianism, there is the tendency to enbrace non-Jewish forms of the same thing. Atzmon’s fondness for Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” – patriotic “socialism” is one example. This is another. Particularly ‘working class’ identification with the nation-state in the classic territorial sense.
Thus Stephen’s remarks excusing xenophobia: “the desire … to live among people like themselves.” Stephen is not talking about class, but national identity here. This is certainly inimical to class consciousness as shown by a range of phenomena from xenophobic attacks on migrants to workers signing up for the army to fight other workers abroad.
Identity exists on many levels. Someone who is Jewish does not have to reject being Jewish to reject identity politics. It is not necessary to reject outright Jewishness a la Atzmon or Sand to not be a promoter of identity politics. It’s rather a question of what you do in practice.
In fact the existence of the Jewish-Zionist caste among the imperialist bourgeoisie means that Jewish chauvinism today is a form of imperialist chauvinism. Which it is necessary to oppose as much as any other imperialist chauvinism. Properly understood, there can be no breaking from that in order to embrace more conventional forms of social chauvinist politics. We in Socialist Fight aim to lead opposition to all types of such chauvinism.
As to David Walters, what distinguishes that letter is his ignorance and misunderstanding of both Abram Leon’s work, and our politics also. We will be putting him straight on that. We will see where he stands when he has to deal with an accurate rendering of our politics, and not the mish-mash caricature he describes in his letter.
The fact that the desire to live with others who share one’s culture can lead in the politically naive to reactionary conclusions has no more bearing on the legitimacy of that desire than does the fact that the desire for better wages can lead to capitalist restrictivism has on the legitimacy of the desire for higher wages. Socialist workers should understand that the cultural chaos produced by mass migration under capitalism isn’t the fault of the migrants and can only be defeated by socialist revolution.
If you think the desire to live with others culturally like oneself shows reactionary xenophobia, then you must accuse Trotsky of the same, inasmuch as he forecast that socialism would involve planned mass migrations. He wrote that the masses will demand cultural comfort. Mass migrations are economically costly. If Trotsky forecast that they would be sponsored by a world socialist government, he understood that national culture is important to the masses and that it isn’t reactionary. (In this, his position seems somewhat different, I admit, from Lenin’s in “Critical remarks on the national question.”)
That the fostering of national culture must await socialism (as under capitalism it can only be reactionary) doesn’t mean that the cultural comfort of the masses can be ignored in propaganda or that utopian causes that would undermine it are supportable. That’s the road to defeat, and I submit that it’s a road prepared significantly by Jewish comrades. Jews have had good reason historically to fear homogenous cultures. Today this fear is channeled into reactionary multi-culturalism and utopian open-borderism.
1. Comrade Walters is indeed ignorant of your analysis, but it is a willful, reckless ignorance, not simple misunderstanding.
2. There’s more to his letter than ignorant misrepresentation. He overtly displays his “what does it mean for the Jews” perspective, something even Greenstein had to hide by claiming he was really concerned with the respectability of the Palestinian movement, not the status of the Jews.
David writes, “As such, [the SF perspective] gives unwanted ammunition to real anti-Semites and anti-Jewish bigots.” Yet, in almost the same breath, he recognizes that the Jews have been assimilated! The overweaning concern with the implications for the Jews – despite their actual assimilation – reveals chauvinism.
Why is a “Jewish-American” policing the movement for traces of anti-Semitism when Jews are today privileged? Essentially, the Jewish comrades express their no-confidence in the “goyim” to oppose anti-Semitism without the intervention of Jews. Even if warranted, it’s unseemly for Greenstein, Machover, and Walters to attack comrades for anti-Semitism. It’s like a white person policing blacks for expression of anti-white sentiment. That Walters understands this except as it applies to Jews shows his chauvinism and sense of ethnic entitlement.