A reply to Douglas Carswell: Not actually why the British left hates Israel

DissentWith Douglas Carswell in the news today for winning UKIP its first parliamentary seat after his defection from the Conservative party, I dug out something I wrote about him in 2010 for Dissent. However, I noticed that when Dissent upgraded its site, all the punctuation and formatting on old blogposts went funny, so I’m re-posting it here, in the form in which I submitted it to them with a couple of small copy edits. I also added in a sentence (italicised) in the final paragraph, making it marginally more relevant to the UKIP bandwagon on to which Douglas Carswell has recently jumped. I’ll eventually re-post all my other Dissent posts here too.

I have no doubt that certain respectable forms of antisemitism, disguised as hatred of Israel, are endemic in large sections of the British left. This phenomenon needs exposing, and requires explanation, especially given the left’s earlier history at the forefront of the struggle against antisemitism and, indeed, against all forms of racism.

The explanation given by Tory MP, Daily Telegraph Briton of the Year 2009 and blogger Douglas Carswell, however, is not of much help. He offers his theory In a Jewish Chronicle op ed, “Why the British left hate Israel”. The first part of his answer is the left’s reverence for internationalism or, as he calls it, “supranationalism”, in which anti-national values such as universal jurisdiction and global forms of justice are given precedence over the nation-state. Israel, he says, is hated because it is such a stark example of national self-determination in a globalising world.

At first glance, this argument is compelling. There is a strong streak of internationalism on the left, best exemplified by Rosa Luxemburg, who, despite her Jewish roots, wrote that “there can be no special little corner in my heart for the ghetto: I feel myself at home in the wide world, everywhere there are clouds, birds and trees”. However, the mainstream of the left has always supported national self-determination too: Marx was a champion of Polish and Irish nationhood, and national rights were a key plank of Lenin’s worldview.

In fact, it is the section of the left that has furthest extended this pro-nationalist tendency where hatred of Israel burns the brightest: the so-called “anti-imperialist” left, for whom Arab nationalism, Serbian nationalism, Venezuelan nationalism and indeed more or less any nationalism apart from Jewish nationalism are accorded sacred status. For the “anti-imperialists”, national self-determination is an absolute right – just not for the Jews. The anti-Zionism of the “anti-imperialist” left goes against the grain of Luxemburg’s universalism just as much as the ultra-nationalism of the Zionist right does. We need a different explanation for Israel-hatred.

Luckily, therefore, Carswell switches direction at this point. “The contemporary left,” he writes, “appears to meander behind the 18th-century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The founding father of cultural relativism, Rousseau contended that the primitive and pre-industrial were more noble than advanced Western society.” Again, superficially appealing: large sections of the left subscribe to various forms of cultural relativism which forgive all sorts of oppressive practices if those practices are committed in the name of “culture” or “faith”. Israel is hated, Carswell asserts, because it demonstrates the superiority of Western values, and therefore refutes cultural relativism. (He doesn’t explicitly say that Arabs are savage, but the implication is clear.)

However, although it is literally twenty years since I read Rousseau, this whole claim didn’t ring true for me, and not just because in my two decades on the left I have never heard anyone refer to Rousseau in a political conversation. Nor because I don’t see how Rousseau, who lived before the industrial revolution, could have preferred pre-industrial society to his own. Rousseau, in fact, did not use the term “noble savage”, but he did see humanity as innately moral, based on our universal human capacity for sympathy. Although Rousseau’s ideas have not been that influential on the British left, the broader Enlightenment insistence on universal values and natural rights is at the heart of the left’s historical project of social justice and human rights.

The point is not that Carswell is ignorant about Rousseau (knowledge of eighteenth century philosophy has never been among my criteria for judging parliamentarians); nor that he claims a knowledge he evidently does not possess (although intellectual honesty is a significant virtue in an MP).

The point is that the left’s Enlightenment roots once predisposed it towards universal (or, to use Carswell’s term, supranational) values. Nationalism is in fact one of the worst forms of cultural relativism: loyalty to the nation can be inimical to loyalty to the higher value of humanity, and nationalism can justify any crime so long as it is perpetrated for one’s own nation. That is why the “anti-imperialist” left, with its vicarious nationalism, betrays the universal values that are the true heritage of the left. In other words, the “anti-imperialist” left mirrors the retreat to nationalism of the anti-EU, anti-human rights and anti-universalist right. It is by recovering universal values – not by returning to nineteenth century nationalism, nor by seeing Israel’s neighbours as ignoble savages – that we can take a stand against the new forms of intolerance that mar some sections of the left.

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About bengidley

Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Science, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. View all posts by bengidley

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