Last night saw hundreds of people come together for a meeting on Corbyn, Antisemitism, and Justice for Palestine. The speeches were rich and diverse, with those on the platform giving careful accounts of how to oppose antisemitism while at the same time resisting the imposition of the IHRA definition, which will severely limit Palestinians in talking about the history of their oppression, and will stymie dissent amongst Jews against those who announce themselves as “community leaders.” Amongst this discussion a panegyric was given to Norman Finkelstein’s recent blog on the matter.
Finkelstein is many things: a fine and detailed empiricist historian; a polemicist; a public intellectual fearless about speaking truth to power, not least when Zionists try to clothe the Israeli oppression of Palestinians in the language of piety to the memory of the Holocaust. But none of this explains why, in the context of present debates in British politics, he feels the need to fill his articles with all sorts of opinions that sail extremely close to the wind of being themselves anti-Semitic. His latest missive contains phrases like, “given the fraught history of anti-Semitism, on the one hand, and its crude manipulation by Jewish elites, on the other, an objective, dispassionate assessment could appear beyond reach”; ”Jews have too much power in Britain”; or "Whereas being Black or Muslim closes doors, being Jewish opens them. If whites occupying seats of power discriminate in favor of other whites, and men occupying seats of power discriminate in favor of other men, it would be surprising if largely successful Jews didn’t discriminate in favor of other Jews." And this is to say nothing of his obsession with the existence of certain ultra-rich Jews.
No doubt, Finkelstein thinks of himself as a sort of Jewish Zizek. The rhetorical strategy of including these sentences functions in the same way that you can find in talks given by Zizek, who makes endless highly graphic jokes about women being raped or Western sanctimony over children dying in the Med. Then comes the first punchline: that being offended by the joke or dark comment acts as a cover for not being properly offended by a horrific reality; then the second punchline, that the victim enjoys or benefits in some way their participation in disliking the comment; and then the third more serious tragic punchline, that because of the nature of that reality combined with this pleasure in objection, all sorts of people have become so defensive that they can't participate in those discourses that are required to confront the horrors of the past. The Zizekian gambit is a sort of shock and awe to try to blast people out of an attitude of liberal guilt. But mostly the assumption that underlies this is, ironically, that all of these jokes and comments are made in a precisely the sort of "safe space" that Zizek and co would like to decry.
Such a performance is strategically and rhetorically unhelpful. Not only are there no such safe spaces, but Finkelstein's attitude that confronting scared people with the worst of their horrors is in no sense a humane way to try to get them to realise that their fears might be irrational. In fact, more generally, in the world in which we live, irrationality is founded on fear rather than fear being founded on irrationality. And yes, this back and forth motion is the very arena of politics, with those most safe perpetually playing on the fears of people who are already most fearful. But people like Finkelstein have ultimately little to say about the transformations of the world into one free from fear, beyond pressing on the need for meagre social democratic programmes, which barely touch the sides of the psychological binds of late modernity, and not least the depth and range of fears held by many Jews, rational or otherwise. The two options he presents - of declaring fears irrational and ignoring them, or smashing worries out of people by reproducing what they most fear - are equally bad and insensitive.
Crucially, what has characterised much of the feet-in-mouths of the Corbynite left in the last weeks has been a willingness to repeat certain ideas with ever diminishing precision. When, for example, Pete Willsman talked about Jewish "Trump fanatics" it was clear to us who have been following closely that this was probably a reference to ex-Chair of the Board of Deputies Jonathan Arkush celebrating Trump's victory, but to some Jews, without precision, I can see why it got some people worried (even if I didn't share that concern myself). If, more legitimately, Willsman had said "these are people like Arkush, rightwing Zionists, who have no interest in the ends the Labour movement hopes to achieve, and who also have an interest in maintaining control over dissident Jews by terrifying those Jews who are already terrified into submission to community leaders" then actually I think people might, in one way or another, have been more understanding. Call me hopeful. To me it is a concern when people like Finkelstein say things about the "manipulation by Jewish elites" because as much as I at least partially understand what he is up to, I can see it being used as legitimation for that kind of language and thinking in a situation with significantly less poise. It is a very dangerous game. I do not want to live in a world where words like that become currency, whether it is on the left or the right.
And it is entirely possible that using phrases like this would aid the right. Finkelstein’s words are particularly dangerous when there is more than one type of antisemitism around. While he is correct that claims of the extent and dangerousness of antisemitism on the soft left is overblown, not least by people playing politics from the right in order to undermine Corbyn, at the same time there is a resurgent far right in the UK and Europe. In the UK the far right is yet to show any serious antisemitic character in its new populist forms. But today, in a band that stretches through Europe, from Italy, to Austria, Hungary to Czechia to Poland, far right forces are coming to power, and in each case antisemitism has been crucial to their platforms. The British far right - the Tommy Robinson brigades and the Football Lads Alliances - has plenty of links with their European counterparts, and we shouldn't become complacent about the possibility of a swing towards antisemitism amongst their ranks. In the case of the white nationalist far right, we know that when the T-Shirts with Israel flags are removed there are swastika tattoos beneath. Meanwhile, if Corbyn is toppled by this manufactured scandal, it will be seen by many as a victory of "the Establishment" and there are many ways in which people probably rightfully fear that this would be coded or understood antisemitically, as the victory of "the Jews" over a socialist project.
One ultimately wonders if there's an extent to which Finkelstein has been taken in by his own joy at provocation and incendiary phrases. He writes that "Although Engels the mill-owner generously subsidized his impecunious comrade, it didn’t prevent Marx from generalizing about capitalist “vampires.”" Perhaps his propensity to antisemitic phrases really is a problem more deeply rooted in his thought. Marx, in probably the most famous metaphor in Capital, does not talk about "capitalist vampires" at all, but describes capital itself as vampiric, with dead labour (and not merely the owners of dead labour) feasting on the blood of the living. Such an equivocation is not insignificant. Marx is clear enough on the status of the critique of "capitalists": he writes, “to prevent possible misunderstanding, a word. I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests." Indeed questions of "personification" (of things, interests, capital) are central to all of late Marx's thought and writing. Personifications in Marx appear as fixations and archetypes - they are almost always employed as a literary device or semblance to be undercut. Marx, as a writer, is not only the master of the most disgusting and terrifying of realist images of industrial life and death, but also of the thin metaphor that can let itself go as fixation. He likes to toy with personifications. But to read him as a mere critic of "capitalist vampires”, or to replace his complex thinking of class as Finkelstein does with lists of rich Jews, or Jews with power and privilege, is to engage in a socialism of fools that sees the world as a racket, and some blood-sucker to blame.
One does not have to leap far to see why those holding this particularly non-Marxist view of the world have, in the last 150 years, found themselves peculiarly susceptible to adopting antisemitic views and images, like blood-sucking vampire squids associated with financiers with Jewish names like Goldman Sachs, Rothschild, or Soros in the conspiratorial consciousness, all refracted through the deeply buried antisemitic image of the blood libel. More than this, the entire mode of “blaming the vampire”, as Finkelstein does, is to misunderstand how exploitation is an objective process. The fact that both individual capitalists, and indeed the bourgeoisie as a class, turn out to be parasitic on the labour of the proletariat, is not so straightforwardly a matter of their volition or malign intent, but of their need to accumulate and remain competitive. They are not parasitic because they are bad people (although more often than not they are that too), or Jews, or part of some cabal; and nor would the replacement of Jewish capitalists with non-Jewish capitalists ever make the world a better place for working class people. The task of Marxists ought to be to destroy the system that produces class divisions, and keeps one class subservient to another. But to suggest that this critique ends with anger and hatred of the “vampire capitalist” is to take the sting out of everything Marx wrote. With such a thought one might as well reduce the whole of Das Kapital to the single sarcastic footnote to Chapter 25 in which "Our “prolétarian” is economically none other than the wage labourer, who produces and increases capital, and is thrown out on the streets, as soon as he is superfluous for the needs of aggrandisement of “Monsieur capital,”" God damn Monsieur capital, that dirty Jew, says the now nameless Lumpen. Finkelstein hopelessly reassures us that, from the gutter, he’s sure to stay on side and won’t be marching with the new far right.
Finkelstein will almost certainly respond that whatever you say, Zionists are going to accuse you of antisemitism. He probably isn’t wrong. Because of this, he seems to think it doesn’t ultimately matter whether one is antisemitic or not. He doesn’t care about your everyday Jew who is scared even more by antisemitic rhetoric: they are just collateral damage to the performance. Yet what he fails to see is that Zionism genuinely benefits from being able to show that its opponents are antisemites. Zionists benefit when they don’t have to answer serious criticism because they can say “well he’s just an antisemite. Look, he’s talking about manipulations by Jewish elites and Jewish power. He only supports the Palestinians because he hates Jews.” For this reason, not only for the sake of freeing Jews from oppression, but also for the sake of the Palestinian struggle for liberation and a homeland, we need to be as clean from antisemitic thinking as is possible. We need to do better than Finkelstein thinks, and indeed phrases like those he used should be red lines that the left should not be crossing.