There can’t have been more than half a dozen of them. Crowded as usual near the railings of St. John’s church graveyard in the center of town, the Côr Cochion (Reds Choir) were known of old to shoppers in Cardiff, Wales’ capital city, where I still live and work. Every weekend, rain or shine (more commonly rain, this being Wales), this tiny gaggle of diehard Trotskyists would assemble to sing hymns to the death of capitalism and a world ruled by workers. Politics at this level more closely resembles religion than anything else, and so it was with the Côr, who faded into the background like any other street evangelists.
Then, one weekend in my childhood — it was in the late ’90s, so I was about 10 — something about their display caught my eye. Among the torrent of far-left buzzwords on their amateurish placards, one leapt out at me: “Zionist.” I felt like I’d heard this word before. Wasn’t it something to do with Jewish people? But in close proximity to it were other words: “Aggression.” “Apartheid.” “Fascist.” Now I was confused, because what little I’d absorbed of history at that age told me that in the second world war, fascists hated Jews. Didn’t they? I pointed the sign out to my father, walking by my side. “Well,” he said offhandedly, “the ideology of the people who founded Israel was quite close to that of the Nazis.”
I thought little more of it. As a child and teenager, I broadly accepted my parents’ worldview. This chiefly consisted of dogmatic (not extreme) leftism, of which anti-Zionism was but a tiny part. The truth is, the subject just didn’t come up that often.
American and Israeli accounts of anti-Zionism have a tendency to portray modern Europe as slouching towards a Bethlehem of Jew-hatred, with far-left and far-right combining to bring about a return to the 1930s. I wouldn’t go that far. Anti-Zionism is certainly ubiquitous on the hard left, but in my experience is merely one component of a seamless, all-encompassing theory of the world that, if I may be cynical for a moment, revolves around three questions:
1. Which side is the United States on?
2. Which side has all the money/weaponry?
3. Which side, overall, has lighter skin?
Where all three questions generate the same answer, that answer is The Enemy. Where the answers are mixed or unclear, the result is abject confusion, as in the case of Syria. In the manner of a stopped clock, this formula will occasionally yield the correct position, as with South Africa (of which more later). More often, it’s a first-class ticket into the moral abyss. In the interests of balance, I should point out that a nontrivial percentage of right-wingers make use of the same three questions with the results inverted.
I don’t mean to suggest that genuine Jew-hatred is unheard of on the left, merely that cause and effect operate differently than many suppose. Once you’ve decided that Israel is an avatar of Western imperialism and Jewish supremacy, it’s hard to avoid being drawn into a clammy underworld of paranoia in which mainstream, reality-based criticism cross-pollinates with, as the phrase goes, something much darker. An example that might be familiar to American readers is the sad case of professor John Mearsheimer. Once he’d identified Israel as the chief source of American foreign policy woes (with partner-in-Jew-baiting Stephen Walt), it was only a matter of time before he plunged into the gutter with an endorsement of notorious Israeli neo-Nazi Gilad Atzmon.
Another source of leftist anti-Zionism, I have observed, is nostalgia. Disheartened by the shabby, workaday compromises of a democratic polity, a certain segment of the left yearns for an illusory past age of moral clarity. In Britain, this manifests itself in the myth of the Battle of Cable Street, the 1936 confrontation in which Oswald Mosley’s Nazi-aligned British Union of Fascists were forcibly prevented from marching through London’s East End by a motley assortment of working-class Jews, Irish, anarchists, communists and other sympathizers. This was indeed a high point for the radical left, but the memory of Cable Street leads countless activists to waste their time organizing “anti-fascist” rallies against modern-day fascists. The latter are universally a pathetic and harmless bunch, certainly in the United Kingdom, so nothing is achieved save giving them free publicity.
When it comes to Israel, this toxic brand of sentimental self-indulgence orbits the word “apartheid.” The long, dogged and ultimately successful campaign against South African white supremacy is one of the great triumphs of the international left. Nothing has approached it since. This is why anti-Israel propaganda openly tries to force the complicated reality of the Middle East into a Mandela-shaped mold, complete with a “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” campaign. The Palestinians are wronged innocents, the Israelis racist thugs, and that’s the end of the story. A semi-optional element is the Rueful Nazi Comparison, probably familiar to most readers, in which the speaker furrows his brow, looks furtively around and says, with wide-eyed earnestness, “You know, I hate to say it, but Israel is behaving just like Nazi Germany.” I’ve heard variations on this theme from countless peers and associates and, I’m sorry to say, my own mother. (My father was less subtle — he just shouted it at me.)
I wish I could provide you with a dramatic conversion story (I almost said Damascene, before remembering St. Paul’s thoughts on the Jews), in which a single incident suddenly made me realize the error of my ways and become the supporter of Israel I’m proud to be today. Real life is always rather messier. It was more a gradual process of self-education in which I steadily came to appreciate the discrepancies between reality and the dogma around me. One watershed moment was reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s “Prisoners” (which you should, too, if you haven’t). According to the anti-Zionist left, Goldberg is little more than a neocon propagandist, a stenographer for Benjamin Netanyahu who never met a war he didn’t like.