Sociologist David Hirsh Digs Deep to Explain Antisemitism and The Left

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Sussex Jewish News, February 2018, p. 14

Book Review by Winston Pickett

Sometimes the first two sentences of an author’s work explain everything. At other times they offer hints of what’s to come. In David Hirsh’s case, they do both.

“This book is about antisemitism in social spaces which think of themselves as anti-racist and democratic,” writes Hirsh, a senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths University. “It is about antisemitism amongst people who believe that they strongly oppose antisemitism.”

With these opening sentences of Contemporary Left Antisemitism (Routledge, 2018), Hirsh both elucidates and gives a foretaste of the complexity of his subject. The phrase ‘antisemitism in social spaces’ is not one that appears in everyday parlance. Nor do we normally think of a ‘space’ as ‘thinking of itself.’ What we do understand is that a disturbing number of people on the Left — particularly because of the way they excoriate Israel to the point of demonisation — refuse to acknowledge how they enable or reinforce antisemitic attitudes.

What, then, are the ‘social spaces’? For Hirsh, they are the perceived democratic places where antisemitism has, until recently, gone unacknowledged: trade unions, churches, left-wing and liberal politics and what Hirsh calls ‘social gatherings of the of the chattering classes and the seminar and journals of radical intellectuals.’

Hirsh skillfully examines each of these ‘spaces’ and the groups who inhabit them. He pulls their frameworks and mental structures apart, layer-by-layer, in a way that exposes both their contradictions and their allure. In so doing, Hirsh addresses the question as to how antisemitic thinking ‘works’ on a conceptual level and how it plays itself out in everyday language — what Hirsh refers to as ‘discourse’ — to the point that it has gone from marginal to mainstream.

Unlike a historian, Hirsch does not take a chronological approach to the emergence and mutations of antisemitism in contemporary left thinking, a territory which other scholars have amply explored. We know, for example that some prominent early socialists were openly antisemitic. There were Marxists who argued that anti-Semitism had a ‘rational kernel’. After the Holocaust, the Soviet Union launched its own murderous antisemitic campaign, accusing Jews of being both wicked nationalists (Zionists) and disloyal cosmopolitans 

What makes Hirsh’s treatment so compelling is that he looks at left-wing antisemitism via a series of empirical case studies, each one of which disturbingly reveals that this form of group hatred does not simply repeat the past. Instead, it draws on a poisonous reservoir of existing ideas but, to borrow a phrase from Anthony Julius, ‘innovates’ them, adding further elements within a new anti-Zionist framework that portrays Israel as uniquely evil.

Despite the depth of his analysis and rigorous use of sociological criteria, Hirsh’s chapters helpfully proceed from the well known to the lesser known. The first chapter looks at Ken Livingstone, one of the most popular and successful figures on the British left since the 1980s. Hirsch describes what he named as the Livingstone Formulation, a standard rhetorical response to accusations of antisemitism that takes the form of a counter-charge that those who talk about antisemitism “are really engaged in bad-faith efforts to silence criticism of Israel.”

When Hirsh first published his initial study on this rhetorical device several years ago I was struck by the skill with which he dissected its logic and its utility. Close to a decade later – thanks to this book – I’m even more disturbed at how widely it has been adopted in everyday political discourse.  

The second chapter looks at the rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s faction in the Labour party in 2015, while Chapter 3 examines how antisemitism in the Labour Party became a well-publicised issue in the UK political mainstream in 2016, whereby “antizionists, who had once been confined to extreme and doctrinaire corners of the left, were now taking leadership positions in the party, in the trade unions and in the student movement.”

In Chapter 4, Hirsh takes another step back, tracing how struggles within the academic unions over the boycott of Israel (where Hirsch himself played a catalytic, activist role) have led directly to the ‘crescendo’ of antisemitism in the public space he describes in the first three chapters. While astutely revealing how a ‘small group of British anti-Zionist academics’ spearheaded this movement, Hirsh’s expose of the central claim of the ‘Boycott Divestment and Sanctions’ (BDS) campaign – that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’ like the old South Africa – is the most thorough that I’ve ever read. 

Hirsh spends the remaining five chapters of his book drilling even deeper into the phenomenon of antisemitism on the Left with headings like “Struggles over defining antisemitism”, “Ronnie Fraser v UCU: taking the union to court for antisemitism”, “Anti-Zionism: discourse and its actualisation”, “Jewish anti-Zionism: being drawn to the logic of antisemitism” and “Sociological method and antisemitism”.

Comprehensive, erudite and painstakingly analytical, Contemporary Left Antisemitism is a volume that is – and will remain – an indispensable resource for years to come.