A consistent record against bigotry

August 25, 2014

I FOUND myself disagreeing with quite a lot in Paul Pryse's recent letter to SocialistWorker.org ("A pass for anti-Semitism?"). But one aspect I thought was particularly in need of response was the allegation that the contemporary left is becoming desensitized to anti-Semitism and is providing space for bigots to organize. As someone who has been involved in Palestinian solidarity actions for the last decade, I simply cannot recognize any aspect of the movement in this description.

Before turning to the substance of the argument, however, I feel the need to note the incongruity of a claim that the left fails to react to anti-Semitism coming just weeks after Gaza has been devastated and pro-Palestine academics are being witch-hunted out of their jobs. Meanwhile, the largest left party in Germany can't even take a position against the massacre, because some currents feel that to do so might be anti-Semitic. In this atmosphere, a discussion of the Left's supposed softness on the question of anti-Semitism seems perverse.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

Nonetheless, the substance of the charges made must be addressed. Paul puts forward two examples of contemporary anti-Semities who have found a home in the Palestinian solidarity movement: the Israeli-born writer Gilad Atzmon and the U.S. academic James Petras.

Atzmon is unquestionably a vile racist. Reading Paul's letter, however, you would never know that he has been denounced as such by leading voices for Palestinian liberation across the Western left. A few years back, Electronic Intifada published an open letter signed by such movement luminaries as Ali Abunimah, Joseph Massad and Rafeef Ziadah, condemning Atzmon's racism and pronouncing it utterly unwelcome in the movement.

Paul notes that Atzmon's book was published by Zero Books, which also publishes well-known leftist voices like Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour. Once again, however, an important part of the story is missing. In response to Zero Books' decision, a number of authors signed a petition condemning Atzmon in no uncertain terms and calling on the publisher to distance itself from any association with him.

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Four years ago, SocialistWorker.org itself ran an interview with Atzmon. After being alerted to his sordid history, the editors pulled the interview and published a statement condemning Atzmon's racism.

In short, far from proving that anti-Semitism is tolerated on the left, Atzmon's career demonstrates the exact opposite point. The most influential voices in the movement have, quite properly, attempted to drive him out of it entirely.

JAMES PETRAS is a less extreme example, and less prone than Atzmon to toxic fulminations about Judeo-Bolshevism. His focus on what he calls "the Jewish lobby," however, and his contention that Jews are the most powerful ethnic group in the country, are quite nasty and have no place on the left. The same as with Atzmon, however, Petras has not gotten a free pass. The International Socialist Review criticized his book when it came out, as did Solidarity's journal Against the Current. A quick Google search reveals they were hardly alone on the left in doing so.

It's true that both have been published by websites like CounterPunch, but the weight of this fact is unimpressive. CounterPunch runs a lot of useful material, to be sure, but a website that regularly prints someone like Reagan administration Treasury official Paul Craig Roberts can hardly be held as indicative of the general editorial line of the left.

In short, I don't see any evidence for the claim that the left is becoming desensitized to anti-Semitism or giving bigots a pass. On the contrary, the dramatic growth of the Palestinian solidarity movement over the last few years has only helped generalize the left's commitment to a universalistic conception of justice as applying to all people everywhere. For decades, on the Western left at least, this conception seemed to apply everywhere except between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.

With the advance of Palestinian solidarity to the forefront of leftist consciousness, however, the left is today more universalist than it has ever been. It is an accomplishment we should take pride in, and not allow to be tarnished with baseless accusations.
Paul Heideman, New York City

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