Thursday, October 20, 2011

CiFWatching, Andy Newmanism, Gilad Atzmon and the socialism of fools

I've been writing this post, on and off, for a couple of weeks now, and it's not that coherent and trails off with no conclusion, but I thought I better just press publish, as it gets out of date faster than I can write it.


Hadar Sela on the socialism of fools
OK, as you'll know by now, Socialist Unity editor Andy Newman wrote a piece for the Guardian on left antisemitism, using Gilad Atzmon as one example. Hadar Sela had an article published at CiFWatch entitled "Andy Newman’s socialism of fools: The remarkable staying power of leftist antisemitism". She starts by noting that the "the sane centre-ish Left", including Harry's Place and me welcomed his comments, but were perhaps myopic in doing so. She correctly notes that "Gilad Atzmon is clearly a very extreme case; one would have to be either terminally intellectually challenged or willfully blind in order to not recognize his anti-Semitism." She suggests that, by concentrating on the extreme case, he (and his ilk) are trying to throw a smokescreen over the intimacy between "normal" anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

I agree that opposition to the most extreme antisemitism can serve to protect milder forms from criticism, creating a kind of cordon sanitaire around normal anti-Zionist antisemitism. But I don't think we have any evidence that throwing a smokescreen was Newman's intention, or that his criticism of Atzmon is anything other than in good faith.

Sela seems to think that the Guardian commissioned Newman to write this, and deliberately chose him because of his socialist credentials, whereas I don't see that we have any evidence that Newman did anything other than act off his own back because of anger at left antisemitism.

Sela makes a lot of Newman's involvement with the local Swindon branch of Stop the War, and from that condemns him because of national StW's links with Islamists. I agree (and have regularly argued here) that StW is tainted by its association with far right Islamists. "On October 8th it will be holding a rally in central London at which known supporters of the anti-Semitic (and proscribed) terrorist organization Hamas such as Anas Altikriti and Mohammed Sawalha are billed to appear." Actually, I'm not sure they spoke; I think they just pledged to attend, along with Peter Tatchell. But even so, I'm not convinced it is fair to blame this on the Swindon branch. At any rate, and even if it was fair to indict him for links with Islamism, it seems like a pretty big jump from there to "In other words, inviting Andy Newman to rubber-stamp [?] Gilad Atzmon’s anti-Semitism is a bit like asking Nick Griffin to write an article denouncing Combat 18." That kind of excessive rhetoric devalues accusations of antisemitism. 

A smaller quibble is that Sela focuses on Newman's attack on Atzmon, when of course Atzmon was simply an example of a trend; he also cited Alison Weir and the Zeitgeist movie. He left it up for debate where to draw the line. Sela also makes a lot of the words "far right" (she puts it in bold font) in this sentence: "“It is incumbent upon the left and the Palestinian solidarity movement to both be aware of the conscious effort of far-right antisemites to infiltrate the movement…”Newman has stated that the Guardian editors inserted this, which would confirm a lot of CiFWatch analysis, but she has not amended this. It seems to me, though, that there is nothing particularly left-wing about Atzmon or about Weir or Zeitgeist.


More interestingly, another point Sela makes is that left antisemitism is not new or rising. It is of course correct that it is not new, although it feels like it is rising to me, which is why we need resources like CiFWatch now. She gives Lenin as an example of the age-old antisemitism of the left. 
From its very beginnings Socialism advocated the assimilation of Jews as an ‘answer’ to anti-Semitism rather than dealing with the problem itself. The only scenario under which a Jew could liberate himself from racist persecution was, according to Lenin, “when the non-native sections cease to be alien and blend with the general mass of the population”. In other words, Jews could only avoid anti-Semitism if they stopped being Jews.
This simplifies left antisemitism, by ignoring the "socialism of the fools" variety of antisemitic opposition to finance capital, a more significant form of left antisemitism than ortho-Marxist "red assimilationism". (Arguably, even as it rightly battled red assimilationism, Zionism historically absorbed some of the stereotypes of the socialism of fools, with its critique of the diaspora luftmensch and desire for muscular, productive, blood-and-soil Jews.)

And it simplifies Lenin's position, which was richer and more complex, and included unambiguous opposition to antisemitism. He believed (wrongly) that antisemitism would die with the birth of socialism, but (unlike some of his Jewish Bolshevik comrades) did not think that meant socialists could afford not to fight it in the meantime.

I think we need a more subtle understanding of left antisemitism. Lenin is relevant to understanding the SWP's position, but not to understanding the forms of antisemitism being normalised (via people like Atzmon) in the anti-Zionist movement. Atzmon (and for that matter Hamas) bring right-wing, Nazi antisemitism, not left-wing antisemitism, into the anti-Zionist movement.


What happened next 1: Trolling
When CiFWatch's Adam Levik left a comment at Socialist Unity kindly informing them of Sela's article, Andy Newman deleted it, wrote "right-wing troll deleted" over it, and added this comment:
You need to be a special type of idiot to think that my article is evidence that I am equivalent of Nick Griffin. You also concentrate on the words “far right” that I have already explained was inserted by the Guardian editors. And clearly in your book ALL solidarity with the Palestinians or political disagreement with Zionism is anti-semitic; making you a zealot of the most extremist stripe
What an excessive, hysterical reaction, to not even allow the link to appear on the comment thread! If anti-Zionists can't talk handle people talking like this without this sort of response, then they can't claim much credibility.

What happened next 2: The Guardian bookshop
The latest twist is that the Guardian’s on-line bookshop, which usually sells books recommended by its staff and reviewers, started selling Atzmon’s The Wondering Who, billed somewhat illiterately, as “An explosive unique crucial book tackling the issues of Jewish identity Politics and ideology and their global influence.” I was thinking before that the next stage of the campaign was to go to Zer0’s distributors, but why bother when the Guardian will ship in one business day with money off the cover price? As Adam Levick put it, “The Guardian: Your one-stop, hassle-free, 24/7 purveyor of antisemitism.” However, within 24 hours of CiFWatch posting about this, the book thankfully disappeared from the shop.

A rather bizarre exchange occurred on the CiFWatch comment thread. My friend Keith Kahn-Harris left this comment:
...the Guardian bookstore also stocks books by Melanie Phillips, Alan Dershowitz and Anthony Julius. It clearly stocks thousands of works and is not as ‘careful’ and ‘handpicked’ in its selection as it claims. Amazon and other sites also sell Atzmon etc. There is clearly a debate to be had as to whether all online bookstores should stop selling racist/antisemitic works (and by the way I include Atzmon in the latter category). However this is not an issue that is best raised by focusing on the Guardian online bookstore alone – it is rather an issue about the value-neutrality of all online bookselling.
Keith also pointed out that the description from the website, the bit about the explosive unique global influence, is not the Guardian's text but appears wherever it is sold on-line. This means that the illiteracy is presumably the responsibility of the publisher, which is also worrying. 

I'm not sure whether Keith is right on this issue, but CiFWatchers exploded with indignation at his dissent from their view. For example, Jonathan Hoffman (who my friend described as the Tony Greenstein of the right) thought Keith was drawing an equivalence between Atzmon and Melanie Phillips, which he obviously wasn't. More disturbing were the commenters who said things like "Welcome to Vienna circa 1938." Or "Would you find it objectionable if the Guardian were to sell Mein Kampf?" So, if Andy's response to Adam seemed hysterical, these folks make him seem calm and collected. It's my view that this sort of response completely undermines our ability to respond to antisemitism. So, just to be clear: saying the Guardian might not be completely at fault for distributing Atzmon is not the first step in a journey that leads towards Auschwitz.

Then, in a further twist, it turns out that the Times (of London) on-line bookshop also stocks the offending book, which has yet to provoke the chorus at CiFWatch, as it doesn't fit so neatly into their paranoid worldview. It turns out that Keith is at least partly right: one HP commentator points out that Tesco is selling the book too, and speculates that "This could be partly an artefact of online bookshops’s reliance on the Nielsen bookdata system. Virtually every book with an ISBN gets listed in every online bookshop by default (they usually use more or less the same warehouse too, just a different label too)... Actually I wonder how many other nasty books just slip under the net radar like that."

Thinking this through
I'm not sure what to think about all this. One thing I am sure of is that there are lots of different antisemitisms, including lots of different left antisemitisms, and they are not all as bad as each other or equivalent to each other, and they are not all genocidal in their logic. We need a sense of proportion and more calmness in approaching them. We hurt only ourselves through hysteria and paranoia.

For a very subtle and interesting take on some of the varieties of left antisemitism around, read this excellent piece by A Jay Adler on antisemitism as the Ur hatred, following on from his (also excellent “The Uncanny John Mearsheimer”. It is a very good account of the mechanics of Jew-hatred today. Half-way through, we are introduced to the bizarre figure of Ross Vachon, sender of an unambiguously antisemitic e-mail to AJA. It is worth noting that Vachon is a CounterPunch contributor... 

8 comments:

modernity said...

I just read that article by Andy Newman, it was quite good and I loath to agree with CiFwatch.

However, Newman's article at the Guardian doesn't exist within a vacuum, were it to do so that would be a very different situation. There are seven points which occurred to me at the moment:

1. The inability to acknowledge that parts of the Left are often purblind to anti-Jewish racism.

2. That parts of the Left have, for a variety of reasons, either supported, pushed or associated with people who clearly have antisemitic views. These are not one offs.

3. That there is never a good answer as to why it happens. There's no materialist analysis, no dialectics, the question, *why*, never gets asked and certainly never gets answered.

4. Newman's prior knowledge of Atzmon is not reflected in any of his contemporary posts on antisemitism.

See http://socialistunity.blogspot.com/2006/05/marxism-2006-festival-of-resistance.html

5. Newman whilst scathing of the SWP in all other areas, as far as I can remember, hasn't given a particularly illuminating account of why the SWP supported Atzmon for years, including when he was a leading member.

6. Newman's case would be much stronger if his own blog, Socialist Unity, wasn't filled with anti-Jewish racism whenever there is a provocative post on Israel.

7. Finally, Newman cannot bring himself to admit that John Wright has demonstrated some serious problems with anti-Jewish racism, yet is still a valued, almost treasured, poster at SU blog.

Again, the critical question which Newman can't answer is, why do parts of the Left find themselves, from time to time, in close association with obvious antisemites, of which Gilad Atzmon, is but one example. WHY?

Sarah said...

I found this very interesting - and congenial. Hadar Sela's pieces are often thoughtful, but I agree that her reaction seems rather exaggerated here. Also, sadly, she seems to be wrong when she identifies Atzmon as someone too egregiously antisemitic to be worth bothering with. (see comments under Andy Newman's piece for evidence.)

I'm all in favour of anti-zionists distancing themselves from extreme antisemites and having that distnace acknowledged by others - that doesn't stop others, of course, continuing to point out that they may themselves be more subtly or indirectly antisemitic - or may not be.

I'm pretty sure Andy Newman has said he was asked to write the article, and I assume it was because of his Socialist credentials. But I don't see anything wrong with that - I think Hadar Sela thought such a piece would come better from the CST or similar, but seeing as the problem being discussed was 'left wing' antisemitism, there was something to be said for asking Andy Newman to write the piece, as someone whose blog is very critical of Israel.

There's something very galling about being accused of being like someone whose views are a distorted and exaggerated version of one's own - but not the complete opposite. So I sympathise with Newman, WRT the Combat 18 point, as it reminds me of the sneers HP receives when it condemns antimuslim bigotry.

I agree about the various over reactions you go on to describe - I pointed out on HP that you can buy The Turner Diaries on the Times site.

bob said...

Thanks Mod and Sarah. I agree with most of what you both say.

4. Newman's prior knowledge of Atzmon is not reflected in any of his contemporary posts on antisemitism.
I'm not sure when the first one was, but this is not the first Atzmon post at SU. I know they've published Greenstein condemning Rizzo before. True that in 2006 they were still uncritical, during the Respect romance, but there is Greenstein stuff going back at least a couple of years.

5. Newman whilst scathing of the SWP in all other areas, as far as I can remember, hasn't given a particularly illuminating account of why the SWP supported Atzmon for years, including when he was a leading member.

True he has not given an account or explanation. I don't know, tho, when he left the SWP. Was he still a leading member when they were courting Atzmon?

I'm pretty sure Andy Newman has said he was asked to write the article, and I assume it was because of his Socialist credentials. But I don't see anything wrong with that - I think Hadar Sela thought such a piece would come better from the CST or similar, but seeing as the problem being discussed was 'left wing' antisemitism, there was something to be said for asking Andy Newman to write the piece, as someone whose blog is very critical of Israel.

If he was asked, then I have to partially withdraw my criticism of Sela. But, yes, surely more effective for someone with socialist credentials to denounce socialist antisemitism than someone who denounces socialism anyway. Possibly this is as-a-socialist-ism, as one CiFWatch commenter says, but I don't think as-a-socialist-ism is the same as as-a-Jew-ism, because socialism is not just an identity but a set of beliefs that you sign up to.

6. Newman's case would be much stronger if his own blog, Socialist Unity, wasn't filled with anti-Jewish racism whenever there is a provocative post on Israel.

7. Finally, Newman cannot bring himself to admit that John Wright has demonstrated some serious problems with anti-Jewish racism, yet is still a valued, almost treasured, poster at SU blog.

modernity said...

Bob,

Good questions, only Andy Newman will truly know his own views on Atzmon and the SWP but I doubt we will hear a objective rendering. from him.

Atzmon was pushed by the SWP for years, it seems unlikely that 1) Newman wasn't a member during at least part of that period) 2) having left the SWP, seemingly rather bitter, that he didn't bring it up (Newman has criticised the SWP in nearly every other area (I am a regular SU blog reader))

However, more importantly is the continued presence of anti-Jewish racism on SU blog and John Wright's role.

Sarah AB said...

I posted before Modernity's first comment was up - it's true that Newman's article could have been tougher and more searching, and it's also true that some who post and comment on SU might actually have formed part of his analysis. I suppose I want to give Andy Newman credit for making some effort. This is partly because I thought he must have been pretty horrified by the comments on SU (and the Guardian). I expected SU commenters to say things more along the lines of 'well, ok, Atzmon is a racist, but too many antizionists are wrongly accused of antisemitism as a way of deflecting criticism of Israel'. But it was much worse, with people attacking Andy N's motives and his timing in the weirdest way.

BUT - Andy Newman did not seem to wish to attend to a problem WRT antisemitism on this thread. It was inadequate, I thought, to brush aside my reference to Qaradawi's antisemitism just because it involved a MEMO translation.

http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=8372

But compared with John Wight most people seem quite nice.

Adam Levick said...

Hi Bob,

Thoughtful essay, as usual. And, while we will likely reply to your arguments (here, and in a previous post) more fully at CW, I just wanted to note a couple things:

1. You say: " Jonathan Hoffman (who my friend described as the Tony Greenstein of the right)..." This is just ad hominem and incredibly unfair to Hoffman, who (along with a very few other brave souls) is fighting extreme manifestations of anti-Zionism and antisemitism in a UK where Judeophobic narratives are no longer controversial.

2. You write, "saying the Guardian might not be completely at fault for distributing Atzmon is not the first step in a journey that leads towards Auschwitz." Respectfully, this is a classic straw man, Bob. Nobody at CiF Watch has suggested anything resembling such a characterization. You're taking a few stray CW reader comments and impugning our blog with their admittedly hysterical narrative.

3. You write: "Then, in a further twist, it turns out that the Times (of London) on-line bookshop also stocks the offending book, which has yet to provoke the chorus at CiFWatch, as it doesn't fit so neatly into their paranoid worldview."

In fairness, you were right that we should have noted this, and I just updated our post to acknowledge that the Times is still selling the book.

However, as you know, we monitor the Guardian, not the Times, and I don't think we have to compare and contrast what other UK media groups are doing everytime we expose antisemitism at the Guardian.

Further, I'm not quite sure what you even mean when you accuse us of advancing a paranoid or conspiratorial worldview.

Our posts about anti-Zionism and antisemitism at the Guardian speak for themselves. And, I don't know how anyone who understands antisemitism, and is familiar with the Guardian, could possibly deny that the Guardian group is in a league of its own when it comes to sanctioning voices opposed to my nation's mere existence, and legitimizing classic antisemitic narratives. Do you really think this is even debatable?

Again, thanks for your always thoughtful and intelligent blog.

Adam

bob said...

Thanks Adam for the kind words. Re your points.

1. Yes, that was a harsh and unnecessarily personal thing to say. The same friend, by the way, called Roberta Moore the Deborah Fink of the right. I agree JH is bravely fighting extreme manifestations of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, but he is also fighting for a version of Zionism I don't find too congenial, and he is all too often his own worst enemy for his over-exaggerations. I apologise though.

2. Clearly I exaggerated, but it seems to me all too often that there is a segue to thoughts like "Welcome to Vienna ca 1938" in the comment threads, and to me this just seems paranoid and hysterical.

There is an issue about the relationship between the above-the-line posts on a blog and the general tone below the line in the thread. This is an issue with SU, where Jon Wight is published above the line alongside clear denunciations of Atzmon etc, but the comment thread mood is quite congenial to antisemitism. It is an issue with HP, where a strong line against anti-Muslim racism and the EDL is held above the line, but below the line is a toxic swamp of Islamophobia. At CW, there seems to be a closer relationship between posters and commenters, but there is a lot more paranoia and hysteria below the line. There is also support below the line for counterjihadi sites that are linked to the EDL, and there are a fair few EDL types one some threads, despite at least one very clear denunciation of the EDL. Regular readers will know that I am can't take any moral high ground on this, but it's something to think about.

3. Thanks for updating the post. I agree that CW's job is watching the Guardian and not the Times, and I am glad that watching is being done. I know life is too short and full to do this sort of thing, but I think it would have been right to acknowledge quicker that the Guardian was, in this particular instance, not unique in peddling this nonsense on their supposedly bespoke on-line stores. An earlier version of my post stoppped at “The Guardian: Your one-stop, hassle-free, 24/7 purveyor of antisemitism.” I realised, after reading Keith and then HP that this was unfair, and so I amended before publishing. This was not complicity with antisemitism, but just how a mechanised book retail industry works. Even if, as you are right to insist, the Guardian does play a role in disseminating antisemitism.

Adam Levick said...

Hi Bob,

We just published a reply, by Hadar Sela, at CW, to your recent blog posts.

We'd appreciate any comment you may have beneath the line.

http://cifwatch.com/2011/10/24/jews-israel-the-atavistic-british-left-a-response-to-bob-from-brockley/

Thanks for this continuing thoughtful exchange of views.

Adam