The argument that calling the Left’s Israel boycott ‘antisemitic’ will interfere with the anti-boycott campaign

In today’s Observer (Sunday 8th July, Television) Amelia Hill reviewed The War on Britain’s Jews (Monday 9th July, Channel 4 at 8pm), in which the Daily Mail’s right wing Richard Littlejohn (who I think is, supporter of Israel or not, a curate’s egg) makes the case that the resurgence of left-wing middle-class anti-Semitism is growing under the camouflage of anti-Zionism. Amelia doesn’t agree:

“And this is where the documentary becomes suspect. I inhabit the landscape Littlejohn lambasts, but I don’t recognise the world he describes. I know of no-one who holds all Jews responsible for the Israel/Palestine situation. Nor do I know of anyone who consider the Israeli boycott to be this year’s fashion accessory”.

She then goes on to point out that there is a “disproportionate presence” of Islamic extremists in UK attacks against Jews and charges Littlejohn with underhandedly “laying the blame for the rise in anti-Semitism at the feet of his usual whipping boys”. At no point does she acknowledge the tireless and well documented efforts of parts of the Left, particularly the Socialist Worker Party and Respect, to present Israel as a pariah state. One example is found on Engage which, in the form of letters to the UCU Activist List (Jon Pike, Stephen Duke and Josh Robinson, June 26th 2007 into July). Another is the donning of ‘We Are All Hizballah Now’ placards (as witnessed by Harold Evans, CIF) on the Stop The War August 2006 demo. Ilan Pappe, former Israeli academic and pin-up of the boycott movement, supports Hamas and Hizballah (2006). And Respect literally erased Israel from its map of the region.

Matt and I had a conversation about it this evening. I get a lot out of talking to Matt about the Israel boycott because he is a) decent to his bones, b) unusually level headed, c) politically lethargic and therefore representative of most people, d) clued up about current affairs and e) never shy to say what he thinks. Matt believes, along with and independently of others such as Sean Matgamna (quoted here from his 2005 Workers Liberty piece What is Left Anti-Semitism?) that:

“…talk of left-wing anti-semitism to a left-wing anti-semite normally evokes indignant, sincere, and just denial – of something else! “No, I’m not a racist! How dare you call me a racist?””

and later, among the early comments to that piece, Sean again:

“There are people who try to turn any discussion on left-wing anti-semitism into a discussion on how anti-racist they are and how unfair it is to call them racists. People who by anti-semitism understand nothing else but Hitlerian zoological racism.

The question is: is it true that – nuts aside – left-wing anti-semites are not racists? It surely is true. The typical left-wing anti-semite does not – and this is a plain matter of fact – concern him or herself with zoological race theory, or subscribe to any such theory.”

This is basically Matt’s point – that well-meaning boycott supporters who want to apply the same measures which they are assured worked so well in ending apartheid in South Africa (which is controversial at best) are in denial. Matt argues that, being in denial, they are liable to flare up at the accusation of anti-semitism. He thinks that their chosen mode of supporting the Palestinian resistance – boycotting Israel – is evidence that their powers of reason are flawed, in which case why, he asks, would we expect them to recognise what he reckons to be a fine distinction between the accusation of being an antisemite, and the different accusation that their act is antisemitic.

My response to that was to wheel out that famous old Trotsky quotation about calling things by their right name. While looking for it for this entry, I came across another from Cardinal Etchegaray (in Normblog), who said in 2003:

“There is a return of anti-Semitism in our Europe… Not to recognize it, not to call it by its name is an unwitting way of accepting it.”

Which is broadly what I wanted to say. Here’s Trotsky (1938):

“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives — these are the rules”

Matt, being of a persuasive and pragmatic rather than confrontational wont, replied that the fact remained that boycotters have been and are alienated by any charge which included the word “antisemitism” and this alienation is expressed as defensive hostility which makes it drastically less likely that they will be receptive to any of the many good reasons not to boycott Israel. Which makes “calling things by their right names” somewhat futile, and in that futility, self-indulgent. (I note that Workers Liberty are themselves inclined to interpret “calling things by their right name” quite loosely when it comes to the boycott debate).

I asked him what alternative approaches he’d take. He had less public dialogue in mind, for example (to the boycotters in person and in private) “Why do you think so many people feel that Israel is being singled out for particular punishment?”. I could answer that one – they’d say “How can we avoid singling out Jews? After all, Israel is a unique state – a colony of Jews who appropriated Palestinian lands and is now brutally oppressing the Palestinians through occupation and the apartheid wall and excluding Palestinian Israelis with discriminatory laws. If we want to help the Palestinians, it is inevitable that the group of people we’re going to oppose will be Jewish, because the group of people who are trampling all over Palestinians is Jewish.” That’s how it would go in the first instance. Then, Matt said, you could proceed to talk about the legitimacy of Israel, the results from recent polls demontrating consensus round a two state solution, the discriminatory effects of the boycott, and alternative constructive ways of supporting the Palestinians. Matt believes that it would be possible to reason them into abandoning the boycott, but he feels that the current strategies of outrage and shame make boycotters bristle with obstinacy. He also thinks that the public textual nature of the conversation is counterproductive because it is hard to disown what has been published on the Web (though Barthes would contest that it is harder to unsay what has been said). In Matt’s assessment, if Engage and others (who he believes have every right and reason to oppose the boycott on grounds of its antisemitism) carry on as they are “they’ll be at it until kingdom come”.

He also remarked that making pariahs of right wing racists is a different matter. Right wing racists are extremists who need to be exposed as such. Confront a right wing racist with an accusation of racism and s/he says “Yeah – so what?”. Well meaning left liberals, on the other hand, are horrified and vigorously deny it.

In response to that I made three points in response. The first was that the boycott and anti-boycott campaigns have been largely mediated – individuals don’t always meet and debate, or send private messages back and forth. Each makes presentations via the media, whether that be blogs, television, radio or the press. These restrict opportunity for dialogue between opinion formers. Secondly, Matt’s approach also poses the problem of skirting round anti-semitism – making arguments about anything but anti-semitism – accusing the boycotters of anything but antisemitism: dealing lightly with academic freedom; choosing ineffective impracticable strategies; wasting Union time; helping the Israeli Right – on the assumption that those charges are less antagonistic and more persuasive than accusations of anti-semitism. In fact, those arguments have proved easy for boycotters to shrug off. Thirdly, Matt’s strategy denies anti-boycotters the opportunity to raise awareness in the silent, moderate majority about the antisemitic nature of the boycott, and to make that reason enough to reject it. This smacks of appeasement.

Matt replied that the abandoning the opportunity to appeal to a moderate majority on an anti-semitism ticket was a necessary evil, and restated his assessment that well-meaning boycotters – the majority of boycotters – in their current state of outrage and denial at being accused of antisemitism or having their chosen mode of activism condemned as antisemitic, resist negotiation to a more constructive position.

I said that he might be generalising about boycotters, who are not all quite the naive, bleeding hearts he takes them for. I think that some may be calculatedly ostentatious about their indignation. But to some extent that boat has sailed anyway – many anti-boycotters have committed themselves to an argument which condemns the boycott as antisemitic. But there are others who are resignedly abandoning the anti-semitism pillar of their anti-boycott argument, because they agree with Matt’s – that it doesn’t work.

There we ended it. Matt is an accomplished politician with a good track record of getting what he wants through negotiation along lines he calculates. I’m inclined to call things by their real names, and I don’t have a very good track record of getting what I want. I take Matt seriously. But antisemitism is a major reason to be against the boycott and I can’t imagine abandoning that part anti-boycott argument. I feel that denying anti-boycotters the opportunity to argue that the boycott is anti-semitic is almost like denying them the opportunity to argue against it at all. It is like saying “It’s fine to support the Palestinians by punishing Israel – just choose a tactic which a) works and b) doesn’t tangle with academic freedom.”



Matgamna, S (2005). What is left anti-semitism? Available from:

Pappe I (2006). Ilan Pappe on how Israel was founded through ethnic cleansing. Socialist Worker Online;2011. 29 July 2006. Available from:

Trotsky, L (1938). The Transitional Programme. Available from:

Sorry for the incomplete refs – I’m tired and the rest are linked.


5 thoughts on “The argument that calling the Left’s Israel boycott ‘antisemitic’ will interfere with the anti-boycott campaign

  1. I saw Littlejohn’s piece in Saturday’s Daily Mail but didn’t bother to read it. The headline was enough. Frankly, middle eastern politics is one big question mark for me. But I do know a little bit about the UK left.
    Their whole reason for existence is to support the underdog, whoever that may be, whether they want it or not, and regardless of any objective thought. They have no conception that what they do, attempting to impose their version of morality upon others, is just another form of Faschism.

  2. Weggis – what *are* you talking about ?
    “But I do know a little bit about the UK left.”
    “Little” is the obviously the significant word. If you knew anything about “the UK left” you’d know that it’s very difficult to find two exponents that can agree on anything at all.
    Please don’t tar us all with the same brush. And please don’t accuse anti-fascists of being fascists. Especially if you can’t even spell it.

    As for taking anything that Richard Littlejohn says seriously, I’m very surprised…

    Palestinians are Semites.

    Sorry for the grumpy, uptight, comment. I’ve been in bed ill for a couple of days and so my misanthropy glands are working overtime.

  3. It is true. The best of the left defends the oppressed against their oppressors. The worst of it fetishises any opposition, no matter how vicious, to the dominant hegemonic power.

    And in my book it is fine to make typos on blogs (especially in comments boxes where there is no spell check).

    But Veg whether you call it ‘anti-semitism’ (which is the appropriation of a Nazi term for specifically ethnic, rather than religious, anti-Jewishness) or whatever you suggest (‘anti-Jewishness’ is not right here- because it suggests religious rather than ethnic discrimination) is probably least important issue in what I was talking about up there. But then you are cross and not well. Get well soon. I had that cold – my snot was incredible.

  4. “It is true.”
    What, that “the UK left” is essentially Faschist ?

    Replace ‘the left’ with ‘humankind’ in your first paragraph and you’ve got a point.

    “’anti-Jewishness’ is not right here- because it suggests religious rather than ethnic discrimination” Oh really ? Well to be honest I wasn’t entirely serious there, but while you were commenting on “calling things by their right name” I thought I’d try to let out some more facetiousness.

    And I stand by my comment on Richard Littlecock. A curate’s egg is a really inaccurate description of him. You need to read more of his insightful commentaries:

    Then, when you can’t take his witless bigoted bullshit any further, go here:

  5. Sigh. I need to practise this. I forget I’m not on facebook.

    Veg you said:
    “It is true.”
    What, that “the UK left” is essentially Faschist ?

    No – that there is diversity on the Left. As implied by my next sentence about best of and worst of.

    You picked up on “right names” which is very literal-minded of you, but I do stand corrected.

    Richard Littlejohn is by all accounts a bigot. I haven’t seen the programme yet, but have heard reports that it was good. I suppose the point is (to paraphrase something else I read) if I were gay and was told that somebody was presenting a TV programme about homophobia but that they also often say and write nasty things about Jews, Gypsies and black people, I would feel pretty queasy about it, as if using it for my cause were a betrayal of Jews, Gypsies and black people. But the programme itself might be a very enlightening and helpful programme. That’s what I meant by curate’s egg.

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