Introduction to Abraham Serfaty’s Letter to the Damned of Israel

Selim Nadi

In October 1979, while he was locked up by the Hassan II government in the Kenitra prison, the Jewish Moroccan Marxist thinker and organiser Abraham Serfaty wrote a text about one of his main political educators, Abdellatif Zeroual, who had died under torture 5 years earlier. Serfaty had been arrested, alongside Abdellatif Lâabi, in 1972, because of his involvement in the Marxist-Leninist organisation Ilal al-Amam [Forward]. The two men were only freed in 1991. One of the lessons Zeroual had taught him, Serfaty writes, was the meaning of concrete proletarian internationalism. This meant that while the task of the Moroccan Left was to organise the Revolution within the Moroccan borders, this task was never to be detached from the broader Arab Revolution.[1] This lesson would remain central to Serfaty’s theory and praxis. Indeed, as an Arab Jew, he attached a great importance throughout his life to the national question as an important component of the wider international struggle.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


Born in 1926 in Casablanca – a city about which he wrote a study in 1988[2] – in a Jewish family, Serfaty entered the Moroccan Communist Party, which was led by another key figure among Arab Jewish Communists – the Algerian born Léon-René Sultan –, as soon as 1944. Later, during a stay in France, he also entered the French Communist Party (PCF), of which he was a member from 1945 to 1949. It was during World War II that Serfaty had his main political education. Indeed, while the antisemitic laws of the Vichy Regime targeted Moroccan Jews, Serfaty’s anticolonialism crystallised. As Alma Rachel Heckman writes: “Figures such as Abraham Serfaty represented a new generation of Moroccan Jews whose political consciousness had been shaped by the war years.”[3] Indeed, it is worth nothing that Serfaty was no exception and that a number of important Arab Communists were Jewish, such as the already mentioned Léon-René Sultan, or the anticolonial communist activist Edmond Amran El Maleh, who worked closely with Palestinians throughout his life.

While being a member of the Moroccan Communist Party, Serfaty did not follow the PCF’s conciliatory line regarding colonialism and national independence and committed himself to the struggle for Moroccan independence. Serfaty got a diploma in engineering from the famous French University École des Mines and reflected a lot on issues of development and on the continuity of neo-colonial economic relations in Morocco. While he could have chosen a convenient career as an engineer, he chose the political path and struggled against the poor conditions of the Moroccan working class (e.g.: he supported the miners’ strikes in Morocco).

Serfaty was also interested in a range of international issues beyond Morocco’s borders, such as the revolutions in Vietnam, China, or Cuba. Even if it would be worthwhile to write a whole article about his anti-imperialist and proletarian commitment, we will focus here on a particular issue at stake in Serfaty’s involvement: his political reflections on the relationship between Palestinian liberation, Zionism and the “Jewish Question”. In the text that follows, Letter to the Damned of Israel (published in 1982), Serfaty reflects on antisemitism, anti-Zionism, as well as on the oppression of both Palestinians and Jews by Zionism. Insofar as this Historical Materialism issue is organised around the question of Marxism and Antisemitism, this article is key for several reasons:

  • Beyond his anti-imperialism, the issue of Zionism was crucial for Serfaty as a Jew – and connected to his fight against antisemitism. His reflections on Zionism were significant because they helped him to think about the meaning of Arab-Jewishness, the specificity of the social conditions of Arab Jews, and their specific class position within the Israeli society.
  • He considered Zionism as a specifically European phenomenon and perceived Arab Jews as a potential internal threat to Zionism.
  • This focus on Serfaty’s political thinking is crucial in order to avoid erasing Arab-Jews from Jewish history and from the analysis of antisemitism – or to confuse them into a “universal” Jewish people (which tends to means, in practice, to collapse them into the history of European Jews).

As such, Serfaty’s relationship to Zionism, as well as the fact that his being Arab and his Jewishness played a role in his harsh critique of Zionism – a critique grounded on Jewish texts as well as on the tradition of Arab Judaism – can help us to bring an different perspective to some of the issues raised by today's political debates on anti-imperialism, as well as on the connection between Antisemitism and Zionism. As such, the main question that will guide this introduction to Serfaty’s text is to understand to what extent Serfaty understood “identity” as a social category instead of as an abstract and individualist category – not only the “Jewish identity” of Arab Jews in Israel but also their identity as Arabs. 

While the question of “identity politics” is often dismissed by the European and US radical Lefts, Serfaty’s political reflections on these issues can offer some important contributions to our understanding of the intimate connection between issues of “identity” (Arab and Jewish in this case), anticolonial struggles, and class struggle. Indeed, Serfaty’s understanding of “identity” had nothing to do with many contemporary understandings of this concept. Because “Jews”, “Arabs”, “Sahraouis”, etc. were racialized both by the colonial power and the colonial social structures, their “identity” was built on such a racialization. This is exactly why, as we will see, Serfaty did not conceptualise “Jewish identity” as a universal one, but speaks instead of “European Jews” and “Arab Jews” – the social situation of the latter being very different because of its origins within colonial social conditions. Hence, according to Serfaty, “in the countries of the third world – and this is especially true in Arab countries – one cannot dissociate the problem of the class struggle from the question of identity”.[4] From this analysis also emerged Serfaty’s answer to the so-called “Jewish Question”, which he argued was to be found in anti-Zionism, as well as in the history, culture, and class positions of Arab Jews.

Ethnicity and Autonomy: From Sahara to Palestine

As a Moroccan, Serfaty was surrounded by debates touching upon the issues of ethnicity, colonialism, and the need for national autonomy. In 1985, three years after the publication of Letter to the Damned of Israel, while he was in jail, Serfaty had access to Cuban journals thanks to a comrade whose mother was Spanish. In one of these journals, Serfaty read a contribution by a guerrillero from Guatemala who argued that the indigenous question was crucial to the wider revolutionary struggle.[5] While we do not have further information about this specific article, it is clear that his interest in it was part of a wider engagement with the national question, ethnicity, and related questions.

During the same period, Serfaty also read the work of Mikhaël Elbaz, a Jewish Moroccan anthropologist who wrote extensively about Jewish Immigration. Several years later, Serfaty published a book based on discussions he had with Elbaz. In it, Elbaz explains that while he was teaching at Laval University (Quebec) in June 1984, he received a letter from political inmate n°19 559: Abraham Serfaty.[6] In this letter, Serfaty discussed some of Elbaz’s work and asked him about materials in order to continue his reflexion on Arab Jews in Israel. While this correspondent would prove infliential, Serfaty’s interest for national and ethnic questions dates back to several years earlier.

Indeed, already in the early 1970s, Serfaty – along the above-mentioned Lâabi – participated in the building of the Marxist-Leninist Moroccan organisation Ila Al Amam[7] which was the only Moroccan political organisation that explicitly supported the right to self-determination for the Sahraoui people. According to Serfaty, Sahraoui national consciousness was the result of a two-way process:

  • The struggle for decolonisation which saw the rise of a common interest – against French colonialism – between Sahraoui tribes and the Moroccan people.
  • The post-independence dismantling of the Sahraoui Liberation Army by the Spanish and French armies, with the logistical support of the Moroccan state. This process, called operation “Ecouvillon” [Swab], had the consequence of triggering the mass exile and dispersion of the Sahraoui people. Serfaty compares this 1958 dispersion of Sahraoui people to the 1948 PalestinianNakba. However, he writes, exactly as theNakba, the Sahraoui exile also contains the seeds of the rise of the Sahraoui people as an autonomous, self-aware and organised people.[8] In his marvellous study on the Saharan question, Ahmed-Baba Miské argues that the leader of the pro-monarchist Istiqlal [Independence] party Allal El Fassi played an important role in the Moroccan claims on Sahara, stressing the contradictions that can exist within a national liberation movement, which can struggle against colonialism on the one side (France) and deny the right to autonomy to another people (Sahara) on the other.[9] Serfaty was similarly very aware of this contradiction and argued that a struggle for decolonisation has its own political and social contradictions, and that is not a linear process. As we will see below, the question of contradictions in a colonial situation was critical in Serfaty’s analysis of Arab-Jewishness in Israel.

Based on these analyses, Serfaty was also critical about Pan-Arabism because it ignored the questions of minorities (Sahara, Berber, etc.). While the text presented in this special issue aims to illustrate on Serfaty’s analysis of Zionism and of the “Jewish Question”, his engagement with questions related to national and ethnic minorities remains important in order to grasp Serfaty’s ideas about Arab Jews. In her book The Sultan’s Communist, Alma Rachel Heckman writes that “[i]n the 1960s, Abraham Serfaty, a fellow Jewish Communist, proclaimed his “Arab-Jewish” identity as a way of underscoring his Moroccan patriotism.”[10] Hence, one could say that his criticism of the Moroccan Makhzen [Regime] was deeply influenced by his “Arab-Jewishness”, a social identity that helped him to grasp the issues of minorities within an analysis of the wider social context.

As mentioned previously, Mikhaël Elbaz helped Serfaty to reflect on these questions. In the book they wrote together, based on their epistolary discussions, Serfaty tells Elbaz that the link between ethnicity and class struggle in the Third World was a crucial issue for Moroccan leftists because of the Berber question in Morocco. According to Serfaty, the denial of the Berber reality by national movements in Morocco and in Algeria was one of the main sources for their respective post-independence troubles. Indeed, he argued that because of the French strategy regarding Berber people in Morocco – isolating them from the broader Arab population – the vast majority of the national movement considered the affirmation of the Berber identity as imperialist and complicit with the French colonial power. This was also a point of disagreement between Serfaty and a significant part of the Moroccan Left. For example, in 1958-59, an insurrection in the Moroccan Rif region was suppressed and this repression was backed by every single Moroccan political party, including the Communist Party.

It is in the context of his reflexion about the Arab Nation and its minorities, that Serfaty’s engagement with the disaster that Zionism represented – not only to Palestinians but also to Arab Jews – should be understood. Indeed, he argues that prior to the foundation of Israel there were no problems between Jews and Muslims in Morocco. However, he also rejects the idea that conflicts between Moroccan Jews (some of which were Berbers) and Muslims did not mechanically derive from the foundation of the Zionist state. Rather, they emerged as an effect of the political decisions supported by the Muslim and Jewish Moroccan bourgeoisies. The bourgeoisie and the commercial petite-bourgeoisie saw an opportunity of getting rid of their “poor Jews” – especially the Jewish peasantry of the Atlas Mountains and of South Morocco – who became the favourite target of the Zionist recruiters who were “recruiting” Moroccan Jews in order to send them to Israel.

In his discussion with Elbaz, Serfaty takes the example of a meeting between the Moroccan National Movement and the World Jewish Congress at Aix-les-Bains (France) in August 1955, regarding the departure of 45 000 Moroccan Jews between September 1955 and June 1956. He writes:

The poorest and the most vulnerable became the target of recruiters with the tacit, if not explicit, backing of the bourgeoisie, both Jewish and Muslim, who got rid of this authentic Judaism.[11]

While these Jews were ripped from their land in Amizmiz, in the villages of the Atlas, or in the Moroccan South in the 1950s, the biggest turn came with the 1967 so-called Six Day War. Indeed, Moroccan Jews were ripped from their country in June 1967. This was both due to the promotion of Zionism by the Jewish bourgeoisie of Morocco but also because of the racist politics of the majority of the Muslim bourgeoisie of Morocco who, beginning in 1961, literally “sold” Moroccan Jews to Zionism – in Serfaty’s words. The process of immigration by Moroccan Jews to Israel was, thus, not a simple effect of Zionist policies or propaganda, but a consequence of antisemitism in Morocco – largely promoted by the bourgeoisie. It is worth nothing that this does not mean that the lower classes were free of any prejudices against Jews, but that their ability in influencing the latter’s lives was much more limited. Hence the Zionist project worked hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism in Morocco, an issue to which we return below.

The Social Specificity of Arab-Jewishness

From childhood, Abraham Serfaty’s father had explained to him, especially when going to the synagogue, that Zionism was antithetical to Judaism – an idea that we also find in Letter to the Damned of Israel. But a large part of Serfaty’s reflexion on the Jewish question was developed while he was accompanying his father, who had health issues, in a Parisian clinic, in May 1969. It is in this clinic that Serfaty discovered and read Marxist thinkers that were not discussed in Morocco – he read, for example, Karel Kosik’s Dialectics of the Concrete, as well as Althusser, Ernst Bloch and Lucien Goldmann. It is also during this stay that he really thought about the so-called Jewish Question. In a book written with his wife Christine Daure-Serfaty,La Mémoire de l’Autre [The Other’s Memory], he writes that Kosik,[12] Marx’s text on the Jewish Question, as well as a number of readings on Arab Judaism. helped him to better situate the Jewish Question in Europe on the one hand, as well as Moroccan and Arab Judaism on the other. At that time, he hadn’t read Abraham Léon’s book, On the Jewish Question, which he later considered to be a masterpiece of analysis, whilst also recognising the validity of Maxime Rodinson’s critiques.[13]It is also during this period that Serfaty discovered the work of Emmanuel Levyné, with whom he later exchanged letters, as we will see below.

Serfaty stressed the fact that while Israel was presented as a state founded by “their Jewish brothers”, Zionists were, in reality, the oppressors of Arab Jews and denied the specificity of their identity. Zionism was originally a European ideology, Serfaty writes, and its effect on Arab-Jews was to deny the specificity of their history:

Zionism is contrary to the glorious history, spanning more than a millennium, of Arab and Mediterranean Judaism, which was historically forged in symbiosis with Islam within the Arab civilization.[14]

One of Serfaty’s main ideas was that there is no homogeneous Jewish people – he asked Arab Jews: “Do you form one people with your oppressors?”[15] By oppressors he meant European Zionists. Indeed, he refused to inscribe Arab Judaism in an imagined general History of Jews, with a homogeneous “Jewish subject”.

However, Serfaty did not consider Arab-Jewishness as an abstract identity. The issue of identity was very concrete to him and he criticised the progressive forces that despised engaging with it. Regarding Arab, and more specifically Moroccan, Judaism in the 1950s – the period in which, as we have seen earlier, Zionism ripped Moroccan Jews off from their country – Serfaty categorises poor Moroccan Jews into three main groups:

  • A group that is still rooted in a “two thousand year old past”;[16] a past made of peasant communities from the Moroccan mountains. This group is an integral part of arabo-berber society, which forms the deep reality of Maghreb.
  • The second group is made up of traditional urban communities – working in small businesses and handicraft.
  • The third group consists of the proletariat and semi-proletariat from Casablanca – a product of colonial misery.

Serfaty writes that these groups were organised around two main structures: the Moroccan rabbinate, an older ideological and cultural organisation, and the “Israelites Communities”, a social structure made-up by the colonial power, supported by the middle class and the big bourgeoisies. Hence, Moroccan Jews coming from the lower classes were socially torn between the ancient tradition and organisation of Arab Judaism and another structure shaped by the colonial power and the local bourgeoisie. While the Moroccan rabbinate attempted to struggle against Zionism – which it considered in contradiction with the Jewish religion (Serfaty refers especially to the 1952 Rabbis Council organised in Rabat, as well as to a letter written by the President of the Rabbinic Court from Meknès in May 1952) – it was not powerful enough to prevent the denial of Morocco’s ancient Arab-Jewish tradition by the alliance between the Jewish and Muslim Moroccan bourgeoisies, the French colonial power and, later, Zionism. The assault on traditional identities among Moroccan Jews was led by both antisemitism at home and by Zionism (from) abroad.

In his Letter to the Damned of Israel, he stresses the fact that Zionism was a critical tool in the attempts to rip Arab Jews away from their past – and their specificity. Looking at Arab Jews in Israel, Serfaty argues that the difference between them – who come, for a large part, from the working class – and the European Jews, is the attachment to the Jewish religion. Indeed, Serfaty argues in the 1980s, secularism is much stronger among European Jews – and the religious attachment is stronger among Arab Jews. A direct consequence of this is that Arab Jews are more likely to vote for the Likud Party – an Israeli right-wing Party, whose religious references are more numerous – than for the socialist and secular Ma’arakh.

In sum, the consequences of Zionism on Arab Jews could be seen as contradictory but it is this contradiction that explains the specific position of Arab Jews in Israel. Indeed, Arab Jews are ripped from their traditions – including religious ones – but, in the same movement, the manipulation of the Jewish religion is pushing Arab Jews towards the more right wing Zionist political movements. Should Arab Jews then, Serfaty asks, reject the Jewish religion in order to struggle against Zionism? This question is even more relevant since within the Israeli State, the only political forces struggling against Zionism are Marxist ones – political forces in which religion plays a minimal, if any, role. He answered with an emphatic “no”. Revolutionaries’ duty was to analyse the deepest social reality in order to grasp the seeds from which the struggle could develop. In the case of Arab Jews, Serfaty writes, this deep reality was in contradiction with the immediate reality. He asserts that one should first take into account the level of cultural oppression of Arab Jews within the Zionist entity.

The first thing that was, according to Serfaty, deeply anchored into the Arab Jewish popular masses – and that was crushed by Zionism – was the awaiting of the Messiah which had mainly been formalised through the Zohar (the foundational work of the Kabbalah). Serfaty writes that while they were facing oppression, awaiting the Messiah was a kind of light for Arab Jews. It was the already existing light in the present, of a future where God’s Kingdom will be established on Earth for every human being. Serfaty especially stresses the fact that Jews should contribute to preparing for this Kingdom wherever they are – something that was opposed to the Zionist colonial project; a project that needed to “import” Jews from abroad.

Hence, Serfaty insisted that the spirit of the Kabbalah and especially of the Zohar was the claim that the exile would not end with immigration to Israel – since, in doing so, Jews were separated from their culture and traditions. The Jewish settlement in Palestine, and later in Israel, was not understood as a “return” but as the true exile. Serfaty notes, therefore, that Zionism is a negation and a “monstrous perversion” of the Zohar.[17] While he was not a believer himself, he underlines nonetheless in a lot of his texts that in the Arab World there cannot be a difference between people who believe and people who do not believe in God. The only difference should be between the people on one side of the social order, and the reaction on the other side.

Several years before the publication of Letter to the Damned of Israel, between 1969 and 1972, he exchanged some letters with the anti-Zionist specialist of the Kabbalah Emmanuel Lévyne – whose work was very important in Serfaty’s eyes.[18] In one of these letters, written in 1970,[19] Serfaty writes that an important effect of Capitalism in Europe was that the values of Judaism were betrayed and distorted by the “exploiters of Humanity”. In this very same letter, Serfaty writes to Lévyne that the historical period that they are living in (the 1970s) was not so much a time of erasure of national specificities, but a time of fulfilment of those specificities. Therefore, he argued, the struggle against capitalism should take these specificities into account – the anti-capitalist struggle could not be successful if it tried to erase cultural and religious differences. A similar idea is to be found in another great anti-Zionist Marxist Jewish figure of that time – a European one this time: Maxime Rodinson. He defended the idea “that the only barrier to socialism in Muslim countries would be to put in place anti-Muslim policies”.[20]

The issue of the “Promised Land” was also central in Emmanuel Lévyne’s work, which again found echoes in Serfaty. Indeed, according to Lévyne, Zion was the Land of God, and in order to enter it one should renounce the desire to possess it. Hence, Levitism was opposed to political Zionism – because the colonisation of Palestine was never present in Jewish religious texts.[21] For Lévyne, as well as for Serfaty, Judaism had nothing to do with the colonisation of Palestine. However, in linking these two questions, the European and Arab Jewish bourgeoisies presented the colonization of Palestine as the main solution to the “Jewish Question” – and worked, sometimes, hand in hand with local antisemitism (whether in Europe or in Arab countries). It would rid them of Jews at home, allow them to lay claim over their goods and wealth, while simultaneously reinforcing dominant social relations and imperialism across the region.

Emerging from Serfaty’s analysis was the claim that Jews in the revolutionary struggles in the Arab world should not be understood as the “Jewish people”, understood to be outsiders in relation to the wider national community, but rather as simultaneously Jews and an integral part of the national community (the Moroccan one, in the case of Serfaty). It would be a mistake to try to “unify” Jews in a homogenous people by negating their national specificities. The letter to Levyne where Serfaty develops these ideas is especially interesting because, while Serfaty and Levyne had important disagreements (not least on the question of socialism for instance), they agreed on the importance for Jews to participate to the anti-zionist struggle. They did so both because it was an anticolonial struggle but also because Zionism participated in the destruction of the specific identities of both Jewish culture and Jewish communities.

Arab-Jews as a Threat to Zionism

It is because of this contradictory position that Serfaty considered Arab Jews as a potential threat to the existence of the Zionist state. There was, Serfaty argues, a fundamental contradiction between Arab ethnicities, which are oppressed in Israel, and the Zionist structure of the Israeli state. Hence Arab Jews should be aware not only of their “Jewishness” but also of their Arab identity. Arab Jews could participate in the building of a political movement that might break the Zionist structures from the inside. As a consequence, the social group of Arab-Jews – and especially of poor Arabic Jews – appeared to him as a weak link in the Zionist edifice.

The fact that anti-Zionism is of crucial importance for Jews – and especially for Arab Jews – is a recurrent theme in Serfaty’s writing. This was, for example, visible in 1969 when the Moroccan journal Souffles published a whole issue on the Palestinian Revolution. This issue contained an important paper written by Serfaty on Moroccan Judaism and Zionism. This article is historical in natures and returns to the themes of the life and culture of Jews in Morocco, and on the disaster that June 1967 represented, not only for Arab Jews but also for the Moroccan nation as a whole. Serfaty argued that the future of Moroccan Judaism as well as of Morocco itself are deeply connected to the future of Palestine. The struggle for the liberation of Palestine contains, in this view, alwaysper se an international dimension. RegardingSouffles, it is interesting to stress the critical role Serfaty played in the politicisation of the journal, a process in which these questions were paramount. Andy Stafford notes:

It was the arrival of Abraham Serfaty, mining engineer and trade union activist, on the committee of Souffles in 1968 that heralded the hardening of the journal’s politics and the consequent split three years later.

In his two-part piece in 1968 (in Souffles, no. 12 and nos. 13/14) Serfaty brought a Marxist rigour to the debates over culture and scientific progress in the journal. The triumphalism of the West – Israel – over the Arabs in the 1967 war had now pushed the journal towards a Marxist, militant intellectual, position (…).[22]

In the first extensive study on Souffles, Kenza Sefrioui writes that the issue of Palestine constituted a pivotal point in the politicisation of the journal. It was also the starting point of huge disagreements within the editorial board, especially on the role “cultural issues” should have in its pages.[23] However, Sefrioui also writes that Souffles was a political project from the very beginning (the journal was created in 1966), even if it expressed itself in the form of cultural analysis during its three first existence years of existence.

In their introduction to the English Anthology of Souffles-Anfas (Anfas being the Arabic language counterpart toSouffles, founded in 1971), Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio write that the journal played – despite its modest print run – an important role in establishing a transnational intellectual dialogue with other key Third World actors:

The journal was instrumental in establishing transnational dialogues between writers, artists, and activists from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It published seminal works by tricontinental writers and political activists, such as the Haitian writer René Depestre, the Syrian poet Adonis, and Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the struggle for independence from Portugal in Guinea-Bissau, as well as key revolutionary and postcolonial texts, such as the ten-point program of the Black Panthers or the Argentine manifesto for a Third Cinema. Frantz Fanon, the theorist of decolonization and prophet of postcolonial disillusionment, was a particularly important interlocutor for the journal’s founding members. Heeding Fanon’s call to leave Europe behind, Laâbi advocated for what he called “cultural decolonization,” a process by which Moroccan writers and artists would break with stagnant French models and Arabic canons in order to forge new artistic forms and literary languages in dialogue with the rest of the decolonizing world.[24]

Andy Stafford also highlights this transnational dialogue in insisting on Souffles’ Tricontinental entrenchment: “Morocco became in the late 1960s, for a short period, the pivotal space […] for tricontinentalist ideas to take hold and be propagated. As with all pivots, sections of the Moroccan Left did as much to absorb and process the radical ideas emerging from Havana after January 1966 as to re-expedite them throughout the Arab and Muslim world”.[25] It is not putting it too strongly to say that if Souffles lost the important role it had played in this crucial political space, it was because of Serfaty’s involvement with the journal. This is not to undermine the role of the founders of the journal or of other important figures. However, Serfaty’s involvement brought an explicit Marxist framework to the journal and, as Stafford puts it, started the process of the “de-tricontinentalisation”[26] of Souffles – the orientation on Workers and Strikes “was to come at the expense of international coverage”.[27] However, Serfaty also played, as written above, an important part in putting the Palestinian question at the centre of Souffles – as well as a Jewish critique of Zionism.

Thus, as shown by his engagement in Souffles, as well as in the vast majority of his texts, the Palestinian issue was crucial to Serfaty’s political thought, not only as a way to fight settler colonialism but also as a way to stress the intimate bond between antisemitism and Zionism, which worked hand-in-hand and led, as a consequence, to the growing marginality of Arab-Jews in both their historical and Israeli societies. Because of this, Arab-Jews should play a central role in the anti-Zionist struggle.

Serfaty was opposed to the use of the expression “oriental Jews” (which included not only Arab Jews but also Jews from Iran or India) especially because the huge majority of these “oriental Jews” were, in fact, Arabs. Beside the fact that their cultural traditions were not the same as those of European Jews, it was important to him to stress the fact that Arab Jews were also Arabs. To achieve its mythical goals, Zionism had to crush Arabs. Hence, Serfaty writes that in order to make Arabs disappear Zionists do not hesitate to use the methods of genocide, like the massacres of Palestinians carried out in Sabra and Shatila (1982), but also before, in Deir Yassin (1948), Qibya (1953), or Kafr Qassem (1956). For the Israeli settler colonial project to succeed, the Arab has to become a sort of Untermensch and, as such, Arab Jews who are not just Jews but also Arabs, cannot escape this social condition. Hence, being Jew and Arab did not only mean being part of a long tradition and culture but did also mean that one had a specific social position inscribed into the social relations of (post)colonialism. While it is undoubtedly true that Arab Jews were not the victims of massacres like those meted out against Palestinians, their condition was not the same as the condition of European Jews living in Israel either.

Serfaty insisted on the fact that, in Israel, Arab Jews were treated as “schwartz”. Orit Bashkin writes that the “Arab culture of Iraqi Jews, as well as that of Jews from other Middle Eastern countries, was perceived as primitive and degenerate. In addition, it was racialized: these Jews were sometimes called kushim, shhorim, and schwartzes (derogatory terms meaning “black”) to signify their foreign and non-European racial identity”[28] This “schwartz” non-European racial identity meant that Arab Jews in Israel were forced into less qualified jobs, that their dignity was denied in society, and that they were used as cannon fodder for the Israeli army as well as for Israel’s colonial project. This was underlined by the fact that, as Serfaty puts it:

Zionism [is a] racist and chauvinistic ideology born from the crisis of Judaism in Eastern Europe at the End of the 19th century, in a context of European colonial expansion and is the contrary of every single tradition (…) of European Judaism.[29]

Hence, the fact that Arab-Jews were both necessary to the Zionist project but also had a lower social condition – a sort of internal antisemitism – made them, in Serfaty’s analysis, the weak link of Zionism. As a social group, they could sharpen the social contradictions within the Israeli state. However, in order to become an autonomous political force capable of challenging Zionism, Arab Jews had to become conscious of their identity – which was not a double identity but a unified identity based on their social conditions. In sum: Arab Jews living in Israel were both oppressed by Zionism but were also a tool of oppression of the Palestinian people – as Israelis and potential members of the Israeli army. The most exact terms to describe them was, according to Serfaty, as a “colonial minority”. But it is also this colonial minority, which he argued could become the best ally to the Palestinians.

Serfaty had participated in discussions with the Israeli Left – especially with Matzpen [Compass], the radical socialist Israeli Party, and the Israeli Communist Party. He acknowledged that the Israeli Left had a brave and difficult struggle to engage in. But he also added that this Left had to fulfil its commitments – which also meant committing to Arab-Jews as potential allies in the struggle against Zionism. This meant that Matzpen could not, for example, recognise both the unconditional right to resistance against occupation and, at the same time, decide to only support organisations of the Palestinian resistance which acknowledge the right to self-determination for the Israelian people. In Serfaty’s writings in the 1970s, the possibility for a part of the Jewish masses to liberate themselves from Zionism was intrinsically linked to the development of the Palestinian Revolution but also to the development of the Arab Revolution. Therefore, both had to be supported by Jewish activists.

For Serfaty, Jewish emancipation and the liberation of Palestine were linked – but it relied on the development of a higher level of consciousness among Jews living in Israel, and especially Arab Jews. On the issue of political consciousness, Serfaty developed his ideas over the years and, in the early 1990s, he wrote that one should not oppose “conscious” and “not conscious” ideas – using Paulo Freire’s idea that there is always an intuition inside an oppressed person, even if this person is overruled by oppression. Hence, consciousness was not something brought from the outside but it was the crystallisation of the “sensuous knowledge” – Serfaty used Mao’s concept. This is why a coherent project grounded on objective contradictions was needed in order to transform existing sensuous knowledge into a rational one. This was the role of Arab Jewish activists within Israel.

Simultaneously, Serfaty reflected on the Palestinian struggle. In his view, it was not only important for Arab Jewish activists in Israel to work on developing a revolutionary project, but it should also be articulated within the strategic project of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Hence, he argued that the PLO should incorporate within its strategy the resistance of oppressed Arab Jews in Israel. Regarding the different options within the Palestinian resistance, Serfaty was very clear about his position: the only project which could objectively answer the issues raised by the Zionist occupation of Palestine was the project led by Fatah, who wanted to build a democratic Palestinian state. Serfaty was opposed to the two-state solution. Not only was it impossible to achieve it, but he was also concerned for the future of Arab Jews in the Zionist state.

However, in the specific context of the early 1980s, he was clear that the first political step was a limited one and was for the Palestinian resistance to build its own state in the West Bank and in Gaza. This did not mean, however, that this Palestinian state should recognise the Israeli one. The second step was to politically divide the enemy forces from the inside, in the Israeli state but also in western opinion. In the context of the time, it was impossible for the Jewish population of Palestine – except for small groups of activists – to support the project of a Palestinian democratic state. This is why an intermediary step was needed in Serfaty’s opinion. This step was the building of two coexisting states based on the principles of secularism and democracy for all their citizens. Serfaty did not explain how to move from this intermediary step to the final goal. The only thing he stressed was that one cannot expect from the oppressed Palestinian or from Arab Jews to renounce revolutionary violence. His main political conclusion was that in fighting for this intermediary step without renouncing the armed struggle, it was possible to convince an important part of international opinion as well as of the Jewish Israeli population and to move to the next step: the liberation of Palestine and, with it, the liberation of Arab Jews in Palestine. 

The importance of Serfaty’s work today is critical. As accusations of antisemitism are used systematically to dismiss any critique of Zionism, the confusion between antisemitism and anti-Zionism has never been greater. Serfaty’s powerful commitment to the simultaneous struggle against both antisemitism and Zionism – a struggle which for him was always rooted in both anti-imperialism and the concrete analysis of identity formation amongst the oppressed – serves as an important intellectual guide for all of us today.


Bashkin, Orit 2017, Impossible Exodus. Iraqi Jews in Israel, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Elbaz, Michaël and Abraham, Serfaty 2001, L’insoumis. Juifs, Marocains et rebelles, Paris: Desclée de Brouwer.

Harrison, Olivia C. and Villa-Ignacio, Teresa (ed.) 2016, Souffles-Anfas. A critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Heckman, Alma Rachel 2021, The Sultan’s Communist. Moroccan Jews and The Politics of Belonging, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Lévyne, Emmanuel 1973, Le Royaume de Dieu et le Royaume de César, Beyrouth: Le réveil.

Miské, Ahmed-Baba 1978, Front Polisario. L’âme d’un peuple, Paris: éditions rupture.

Nadi, Selim 2018, ‘The Thinker and The Militant’, Translated by Joe Hayns, available at: <;

Sefrioui, Kenza 2013, La revue Souffles 1966-1973. Espoirs de révolution culturelle au Maroc, Casablanca: éditions du Sirocco.

Serfaty, Abraham 1977, Lutte antisioniste et révolution arabe, Paris : Quatre Vents Editeurs.

Serfaty, Abraham 1992a ‘Marxiste, décidément’ in Abraham Serfaty 1992, Dans les prisons du roi. Ecrits de Kenitra sur le Maroc, Paris: Messidor/Editions sociales.

Serfaty, Abraham 1992b, ‘La jeunesse militante marocaine’ in Abraham Serfaty 1992, Dans les prisons du Roi.

Serfaty, Abraham 1992c, ‘Mouvement ouvrier et révolution au Maroc. Le rôle du prolétariat de Casablanca’ in Abraham Serfaty 1992, Dans les prisons du Roi.

Serfaty 1992d, ‘Adresse aux damnés d’Israël’ in Abraham Serfaty 1992, Ecrits de prison sur la Palestine, Paris: Arcantère.

Serfaty 1992e, ‘Le sionisme : une négation des valeurs du judaïsme arabe’ in Abraham Serfaty 1992, Ecrits de prison sur la Palestine.

Serfaty 2018, ‘ ‘En tant que juifs antisionistes’ – Lettre d’Abraham Serfaty à Emmanuel Lévyne’ available at: <…;

Stafford, Andy 2019, ‘Tricontinentalism in recent Moroccan intellectual history: the case of Souffles’,Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 7, 3: pp. 218-32.

Rodinson, Maxime 2017, ‘Préface’ in Abraham Léon 2017, La conception matérialiste de la question juive, Geneva: éditions entremonde.

[1] Serfaty 1992b, p. 14

[2] Serfaty 1992c, pp. 158-69.

[3] Heckman 2021, pp. 67-8.

[4] Serfaty 1992a, p. 244.

[5] We do not have any information about this movement but it was probably the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres.

[6] Elbaz & Serfaty, 2001, p. 14.

[7] While we do not have the space here to develop on Ila Al Amam, we still have to say a few words about it. The starting point of this organisation was a theoretical debate held at Serfaty’s house. A leader of the Moroccan Communist Party asked Serfaty to host a meeting with Moroccan intellectuals and two PCF cadres. Hence, in April 1968, around fifty academics, writers, and politicians from several sections of the Moroccan Left came to Serfaty’s house, along with two important guests from the PCF. While the debate started on the topic of Althusser, it quickly shifted on the topic of Western culture’s inadaptability to handle the political issues faced by the Third World. As a heated debate ensued between the different persons present at the event, one of the two PCF cadres stated that this argument was to be found nowhere in the world except in China, and that Moroccan communists had to oppose the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Serfaty presents this debate, and especially the misunderstanding of the non-European reality by French comrades, as the starting point for the creation ofIla Al Amam two years later, in 1970.This organisation emerged as a split from the Parti de la Libération et du Socialisme (Socialism and Liberation Party (PLS), the former Moroccan Communist Party). Serfaty wrote several texts about this organisation, but a complete study is missing.

Brahim El Guabli gives a useful short description of Ila Al Amam : “In the case of Morocco, which I know best, the Marxist-Leninist movement, which also emerged as a response to the failure of the Moroccan Communist Party under the leadership of Ali Yata to disengage itself from Soviet domination and from its enthrallment with the monarchy in search of a dearly won recognition, sought to create the cultural conditions for the political revolution of proletariat. Since 1970, these groups formedIla l-Amām (Forward!) under the leadership of Abraham Serfaty, a Moroccan Jew, and Abdellatif Laâbi, a novelist and poet, and Abdellatif Zeroual, a philosophy teacher, and others. This revolutionary group congregated around the avant-garde social, cultural and political magazine Souffles/Anfās. In addition to its political engagement, Souffles/Anfās launched a “linguistic guerilla war” – to borrow Mohamed Khair-Eddine’s phrase in another context – on the Arabic language, which remained petrified in its classical moulds. After the brutal arrest and torture of hundreds of its members inside Morocco between 1972 and 1974, the movement mainly survived among the Moroccan diasporas. Upon the release of the majority of its leaders in the early 1990s, current and former members of the Marxist-Leninist organization have been the driving force behind the human rights movement in Morocco. Its members were also among the foremost producers of prison literature.” Mahdi Amel and Brahim El Guabli, February 1, 2018 [online].

[8] Serfaty 1992, p. 180.

[9] Ahmed-Baba Miské 1978, p. 51.

[10] Heckmann 2021, p. 1.

[11] Elbaz and Serfaty 2001, pp. 93-4.

[12] Serfaty was especially interested in Kosik’s chapters on the Metaphysics of Culture and on the Philosophy of Labor. Both chapters helped him to understand the fact that culture was rooted in the material history of humans. It is after having read Kosik that Serfaty started to reflect on the issue of cultural memory – especially concerning Moroccan Jews exiled in Israel.

[13] Rodinson 2017, pp. 9-60.

[14] Serfaty 1992d, p.3 translation.

[15]Serfaty 1992d, p.5 translation.

[16]Serfaty 1977, 16.

[17] Serfaty 1992e, p. 60.

[18] According to Serfaty, Lévyne was, at that time, a crucial person in the transformation of Judaism from a tribal religion to a universalistic ethic. It is through Lévyne’s work that Serfaty understood the Kabbale and the way it is deeply in contradiction with Zionism.

[19] Serfaty 2018 [online]

[20] Nadi 2018 [online].

[21] Lévyne 1973, p. 64.

[22] Stafford 2009, p. 225.

[23] Sefrioui 2013, pp. 92-3.

[24] Harrison and Villa-Ignacio 2016, p. 1-2.

[25] Stafford 2009, p. 218.

[26] Ibid, p. 224.

[27] Ibid., p. 224

[28] Bashkin 2017, p. 6.

[29] Serfaty 1992d, p. 32.

Global Palestine Solidarity and the Jewish Question

Sune Haugbølle

The question of antisemitism continues to trouble and disrupt pro-Palestinian activism. Today, the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism, agreed in 2016 along with a list of examples of antisemitism that tie it to critique of Israel, is routinely used by Israel’s proponents as a tool to silence, shame, and outlaw protest and debate. As of October 2023, the definition has been adopted by 43 countries. The roots of this linking of antisemitism and anti-Zionism can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s, when much of the left globally adopted Palestine as a cause worthy of support. This article analyses the early debate about antisemitism, Israel and the ‘Jewish Question’ in Palestine Solidarity movements and among Palestinian groups. It shows that activists were aware of the need to address the issue sensitively, but at the same time found it essential to formulate a critique of Zionism being part of capitalist, racist and imperialist practices. By reading into early solidarity publications and drawing on memoirs and interviews with former militants, the article first outlines how the connection between the global New Left and Palestine was established.[1] The article focuses on Denmark’s Palestine Committee (founded in 1970) and smaller leftist groups and publications associated with it. On the Palestinian side, it draws on sources from al-Fateh, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the material they distributed globally. The aim is to understand the exchange of views between Palestinians and solidarity activists, and to compare the Left’s readings of the Jewish Question and the Question of Palestine. The article shows how a historical materialist understanding of Zionism became widely established through meetings, exchanges, and texts. The final part of the article traces the development of the debates in the latter part of the 1970s and illustrates how the solidarity offensive triggered a pro-Zionist backlash which, over time, set the tone for the accusations of antisemitism today.      


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


Bridging the New Left and Palestine

In the spring of 1970, the cause of Palestinian liberation was gaining ground around the world, drawing new converts particularly from student groups, Marxist-Leninist New Left parties, and anti-colonial movements and governments in the global south. In Western capitals like Oslo, Berlin and Copenhagen, groups of young activists were preparing to launch Palestine Committees, while others were packing for a summer camp in Jordan organized by the General Union of Palestinian Students. In Amman, they would overlap with Western journalists reporting on the Palestinian fedayin and their struggle for freedom. Meanwhile, part of the Left in the West, for the first time since World War II, began to question what had remained an overwhelmingly pro-Israel viewpoint.

The quick turnaround had begun with Egypt’s Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser defeat in the June 1967 war and Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and Gaza. In less than three years, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its associated groups[2] had successfully broken away from Nasser and instead forged a national platform, creating independent alliances with states and civil society across the world. This internationalization or globalization of the Palestinian cause coincided with increased military confrontation with Israel through guerilla warfare from Jordanian territory, supported by the People’s Republic of China and other powers. The new militancy repulsed many in the West who already saw Palestinians as “Arab terrorists” bent on Israel’s destruction. For New Left groups, militancy often appealed as a necessary means to confront colonialism and imperialism that had proven successful in Vietnam, Algeria and elsewhere. As a result of these connected political impulses of the late 1960s, parts of the Left in Europe, which had until then favoured Israel, changed allegiance and became staunchly pro-Palestinian, all within a few years, starting with the June War in 1967 and culminating with the foundation of Palestine committees and other solidarity groups around 1970.[3] Scandinavia is a good example of this broader development on the Marxian New Left. Here, small groups of student activists had cultivated links to Palestinians since 1967. Now, in the summer of 1970, they were preparing to participate in General Union of Palestine Students activities in Jordan, after which they would return to their home countries and start up their national Palestine committees in Denmark and Norway. Swedish activists had already launched Palestine groups the year before. 

If Palestine bridged the gap between the Marxist-inspired youth rebellion in Western democracies and global South liberation movements, Amman, and later Beirut, became bridgeheads for those who wanted a taste of the revolution. The Palestinian space had become a new central node in revolutionary networks[4], where contingents of third-world politicians and Western solidarity activists coalesced, meeting in organised form in conferences such as the Second World Congress for Palestine held in Amman in September 1970, but also in less organized visits. For many revolutionary groups in the West, the Palestinians attained the stature of admirable front-line combatants in a global fight against US imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and racism. Being with them involved a learning process, an exchange of theories and practical models for mobilization that in turn sharpened their own theoretical and organizational set-up. Ideas became entangled in this encounter, and differently situated struggles melted into each other in a new common revolutionary ‘problem space.’ Resolutions to key challenges that they all faced, albeit in different ways, emerged from their exchanges. One of these challenges concerned antisemitism.

Although evidence is often flimsy and ad hominem, the antisemitic slur has often been hard to overcome for the Left. In order to understand its roots, we do not have to go back all the way to the Judenfrage of Enlightenment Europe or the long trail of Marxist and socialist (ostensible) collusion in antisemitic descriptions.[5] The beginning of Palestine solidarity provides a more contemporary, and I would argue more compelling, perspective on the entangled origins of a problem that keeps reappearing and now, since the IHRA’s 2016 definition of antisemitism, is threatening to limit solidarity activities decisively. I show how, during this formative period, Palestinians made connections with activists elsewhere and drew strength from its entanglement with the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Marxist framework shared – not universally, but widely - across these transnational alliances and networks provided a way to separate the cause of Palestine from the Jewish Question. I analyse this process of separation and speculate on its relative merits. At the same time, the analysis shows the difficulty of truly disentangling Palestine solidarity and the Jewish Question. I argue that this has contributed to allocating the Palestinian cause a fringe position in the Western political landscape. While the movement won victories in the UN with the granting of Permanent Observer status to the PLO in 1974 and General Assembly resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism, great power politics moved only slightly in favour of the Palestinian position. Despite the hard efforts to change the parameters of the debate over Israel in the West, Palestine advocacy failed to persuade the Democratic Party in the US as well as most social democratic governments in Europe to take on their fundamental critique of Zionism. Instead, mainstream Western diplomacy worked to ‘de-radicalise’ the PLO, ushering their leader Yassir Arafat away from a one-state solution and towards a two-state solution that would include a land-for-peace arrangement, where certain elements of Palestinian rights to land and return would eventually be traded in for (ostensible) peace, first in the form of the Camp David Accords in 1978 and later the Oslo Accords in 1994.[6]

This article goes back to the time before all this came to pass – the flawed peace process, the Second Intifada, and the current impasse of Palestinian liberation - and also before the PLO was forced out of its headquarters in Jordan. Before September 1970, a different, more confrontational approach prevailed which spread to, and drew energy from, the Marxist-Leninist Left globally. In the context of this special issue of HM, I interrogate how solidarity activists in conversation with Palestinians dealt with the question of antisemitism back then - how they analysed it, confronted it, and in some cases resolved it. I draw on examples from across Europe and the US but highlight the case of Scandinavia in order to unfold how the delicate questions of Marxism, race, Jewish identity, and historical guilt played out in a particular context. My analysis shows that both Palestinians and solidarity movements were acutely aware of the dangers of antisemitic charges, and that they developed analytical models and explanations as well as practical operational measures to counter them.

Entanglement and Disentanglement on the Left

Framing Palestine as an anti-imperialist cause was the main defense against the charge of antisemitism. As the first activists coming out of Vietnam war protests saw it, the Zionist ideology of the Israeli state and its expansionist behavior epitomized rightwing ideologies of the US-dominated world order, which, so they believed, had to be challenged. Palestine activists who look back at the era remember an element of rebellion in their stance against the older generation of post-Second World War European leftists who had failed to see Palestine in a wider perspective. At the same time, once they had cleared their eyes of the internalised Zionist discourse that dominated mass media in the West, they felt not just changed but also utterly deceived by mainstream society. As the Danish Jewish historian and Palestine solidarity activist Morten Thing put it, “It was like the scales had suddenly fallen from our eyes. How could it be that when it came to this very crucial conflict in the world, we were never told the truth? We simply came to realise [after 1967] that we had been lied to, and that the lie was systemic and organised.”[7] Setting out to disprove the “lies,” as well shall see, Palestine solidarity confronted Zionist myths first and foremost. They drew on the analysis of Palestinians and in particular the work of Fayez Sayigh, founder of the PLO Research Center in Beirut, whose book series included several important volumes on Zionism, colonialism and racism that were distributed to solidarity activists globally. One of them, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine, written by Sayigh himself and published in English as early as 1965 and subsequently translated into several languages including Swedish [fig. 1], provided the historical background for interpreting Zionism as an expression of racism and imperialism. The booklet charts the development of Zionism as settler colonialism, and the Palestinian response in the form of military organization seeking allies across the world but particularly in the global south. As a colonial venture, writes Sayigh, Israel represents “a challenge to all anti-colonial peoples in Asia and Africa.”[8] However, the call resonated with anti-imperialists not just in the global south but across the world.  

fig 1 SH

In the act of engaging with this work, solidarity activists inevitably encountered the difficult Jewish Question and its long and bitter history in Europe. For someone like Thing, who grew up in a Jewish family, that encounter was self-evident, if problematic, painful and difficult. He had to face charges of treason and antisemitism from Jewish friends as well as Communist comrades, not just at the point of “coming out” as pro-Palestinian, but for the remainder of his life.[9] For other activists, concerns about antisemitism seemed trite and overblown, and to a large extent they ignored the charges. This led to several instances where the thin line between pro-Palestinian and what the IHRA definition today calls “Holocaust inversion”[10] – the portrayal of Jews as Nazis - was toed unsuccessfully.

Fig 2 SH 

One example is the Danish Palestine Committees’ 1971 boycott campaign against oranges from Jaffa [fig. 2]. These so-called “blood oranges” were pictured as Israeli general Moshe Dayan. Dayan was presented with highlighted Jewish features in several visual representations of the Left, as for example the magazine Ungkommunisten (The Young Communist) published by the Maoist organization KAK. Other examples include the use of the Star of David as a new swastika, such as in the drawings of the popular Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, whose figure Handhala is an icon of the global solidarity movement to this day, or in the New Left magazine Politisk Revy. In a cartoon in the Palestine solidarity magazine Falastin [fig. 3], the swastika is lumped from Nazism on to the Jews, who pass it on, transformed to a Star of David, to the Palestinians/Arabs. The Swedish Maoist Palestine magazineFolkFronten (The Popular Front) went a step further and featured the swastika lodged inside the Star of David on the cover of their January 1975 issue on Zionism [Fig. 4]. The PFLP, whose translated material dominated in this group as well as in Denmark’s Palestine Committees, also often equated Israeli and Nazi practices. Instead of merely criticizing Israel for its colonialist practices, they routinely highlighted the hypocrisy of pretending to be a victim when in fact the Israeli state was making victims in their own occupation.

Fig 3 SH

If one were already looking for signs of anti-Jewish sentiments in pro-Palestinian material, these slogans and images could easily be interpreted as appropriations of tropes from the old antisemitic vocabulary of pre-Second World War Europe and even of Nazi propaganda. The PLO’s leadership was acutely aware how damaging and delegitimising for their cause this could be, particularly in powerful Western countries where public opinion was, from the outset, overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Therefore, when a wave of antisemitic soundings slogans in support of Palestine began to appear as graffiti in European cities in the spring of 1970, Fateh’s leadership was quick to denounce those who, in their own words, “wish to entangle the revolutionary cause of the Palestinian people struggling for national rights and return to the motherland with antisemites’ longing for racist schemes.”[11]

Fig 4 SH

This Fateh communique is instructive because it contains some of the key strategies that the Marxist-Leninist Left adopted for wrestling the antisemitic beast. The strategy derived not just from Marxist dogma but equally from an Arab intellectual tradition of critiquing antisemitism.[12] Three days earlier, another article in Le Monde reported on a Christian conference in Beirut, which gathered Arab Christian voices and organisations in support of Palestine. Their declaration highlighted the need to condemn “all explicit or hidden forms of antisemitism,” including those derived from a Christian tradition. Linking the use of Biblical texts to Zionist racist attacks on Arabs, the declaration stressed the need to oppose “all politico-religious systems (…) opposed to the dignity of mankind.”[13]

This logic, developed in Arab and European circles that connected through their affiliation with the cause of Palestine, created a blueprint for how to address the issue. First, the cause must be disentangled from antisemitism. Antisemitism is wrong and historically harmful, and must be critiqued, but on its own terms and not in relation to the question of Palestinian national rights. If it is critiqued, it must be contextualised as a European form of racism that was imported to the Middle East, and which mirrors anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotyping in Zionist rhetoric and practice. This separation requires particular labour and strategies at the intellectual and political level. A historical materialist reading of the Middle East conflict shows 1) the active role of US-led imperialism (which, so activists frequently repeated, was “the highest stage of capitalism” as Lenin had said) in Israeli colonialism; and 2) the common cause of Jewish and Arab workers and peasants who together should dismantle the Zionist state and build a socialist state based on secular religious parity. Moreover, since antisemites who long for “a racist scheme” are conspiring to sow hatred between people, those who defend Palestine must develop a counter-scheme based on education and factual enlightenment. Zionism, so the activists and the PLO believe, is itself a form of racism. Therefore, critiquing it risks implicating them in a “racist scheme.” In short, Palestinians and their allies must organise and educate the public if they want to win the information wars that from the late 1970s became known as hasbara (meaning ‘explaining’ in Hebrew) as a shorthand for the Israeli state’s public relations strategy to disseminate pro-Israeli information abroad and, if necessary, smear and undermine Palestine advocacy.[14] 

Wishing the Jewish Question Away

If early Palestine solidarity sometimes acted as if the Jewish Question did not exist, it was because they wanted to replace it with a different question: The Question of Palestine. What is known in Arabic as al-qadiya (the cause) became the single most important rallying point from the early 1960s onwards for revolutionaries of various shades, including Pan-Arabists, Communists, Marxist-Leninists, and Ba’athists, who would otherwise disagree on much else. This cause, or question, traveled to solidarity movements through translations of political programs, key texts, poetry of writers like Mahmoud Darwish, films, and conferences. Writing as an intellectual observer and a member of the Palestinian National Council, Edward Said developed a theoretical understanding of what he calls “The Question of Palestine” in his 1979 book by that name. Following straight after his famousOrientalism from 1978, Said replicates his Foucauldian method to interrogate the articulation and discursive contestation of Palestine, and how it has been used to legitimise the denial of Palestinian national claims. Palestine, he writes, is a contest “between an affirmation and a denial (…),” between those who seek to erase the historical facts of the presence of Palestinians on the land, and those who struggle to affirm and reestablish it.” This struggle between Palestinians and Zionists, therefore, is essentially “a struggle between a presence and an interpretation, the former constantly appearing to be overpowered and eradicated by the latter.”[15]

Said’s intervention highlights the existence of two questions, two entangled causes and problems metastasising throughout the global political field, where one is trying to sound out the other. In making this comparison, Said drew on a decade of international struggle since 1967 to ensure that a Palestinian Question existed next to the more illustrious Jewish Question. At the root of Said’s contestation, therefore, lies the challenge for Palestinians and their advocates to articulate the Palestinian Question and, if possible, separate it from the Jewish Question. Without the guilt of Holocaust and the weight of centuries of pogroms that include leftist complicity in antisemitism, the Palestinian Question appears as a clear case of unlawful appropriation of land. Articulating Palestine as a case settler-colonialism and necessary struggle to resist it puts it in a natural tandem with other related struggles in the formerly colonised world, and in theoretical harmony with Marxist-Leninist articulations of the global revolutionary cause.

Before we get to the Left’s attempt to disentangle the two Questions, let us consider the Jewish Question. The notion first emerged as a set of questions around the legal and political status of Jews in France and Germany in particular, but also in Europe more generally starting with the 1753 Bill of Naturalisation in England.[16] Should they be granted civil and political rights equal to those of Christian citizens and subjects? Would civic education make them loyal and integrated? In these debates, socialists often defended Jewish emancipation. But other times, socialists like Charles Fourrier and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon joined a populist view of Jews as opposed to the people: a group of deracinés cosmopolitans whose mercantilism served international capital and undercut socialist transformation. Towards the late 19th century, antisemitism had become a political weapon employed by opponents of liberalism and, in the case of France, the republican state which anti-Dreyfusards associated with Jewish France. This historical moment culminated in the Dreyfus Affair and gave rise to Zionism as an attempt to provide what Theodor Herzl called “a modern solution to the Jewish Question” in the form of a nationalist movement. Indeed, the Affair provoked Hertzl to make his political formulation of Zionism. The extreme and genocidal answer that Nazism gave to the Question was of course a dramatic escalation of this tradition of anti-Jewish thought in Europe, but also continued strains that were, from the beginning, supported by segments of the European Left.

In their study of two centuries of leftist reflections on the Jewish Question, Tire and Spencer have recently summarised the issue of antisemitism and the Left as a central dilemma first posed in the Enlightenment. The leftist dilemma is whether to stress a universalism for all, which sometimes overwrites the rights of minorities including Jews, or to stress a universalism of rights, including the right for minorities to be protected.[17] In relation to Israel, what is the strongest imperative: To defend universalism and therefore criticize Israel for its continued violations of humanitarian laws and principles as well as for the ethnic nationalism of its founding ideology? Or, conversely, to recognize the special status of Jews as a persecuted people in need of protection in the form of the state of Israel? Those who see global Palestine solidarity as capsized towards the broader ‘anti-Judaic’ tradition argue that it operates with an understanding of Jews as in some important regard the ‘other’ of the universal: “as the personification either of a particularism opposed to the universal, or of a false universalism concealing Jewish self-interest.” In making these statements, these critics claim, the pro-Palestine Left uncritically regurgitates classic antisemitic positions. Claiming to do so in the name of progress, justice or emancipation is nothing new: those were indeed the same terms of reference used by antisemitic socialists of the 19th century.

The answers given to this dilemma of universalism have waxed and waned since World War II according to changing sensibilities and historical contingencies. Arab nationalist, liberals, Marxists, and Islamists all refer to it as well.[18] We see the dilemma today in the clash between the recent Human Rights Watch report of April 2021 that accuses Israel of Apartheid, and the increasing number of countries signing on to the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The emergence of Palestine as a global cause for the Left after 1967 marks the most critical juncture in the history that has brought us to this point. With that shift, a strong new narrative developed seeing Israel as a frontline opponent in the global struggle against imperialism, racism, and capitalism. These universalist concerns came to override the equally universalist apprehension regarding antisemitism. The entanglement of Palestine with the youth rebellion, student movements, Maoism, protests against the war in Vietnam and the whole counterculture of the late 1960s, powerfully questioned and challenged the narrative about Israel that most of the global Left had cultivated, learned and internalized through various means since 1945. In the old narrative – created and perpetuated by Israeli intellectuals and propaganda but adopted and reinterpreted in the context of post-war Europe - Israel is an embattled defender of Western humanism against fascist onslaughts in the region. By resisting “fascist” (or even Nazi, as in the common rendition of Nasser as an ‘Arab Hitler’ in the 1960s) regimes in the region, Israel continues the struggle during the second World War against fascism and Nazism, so the discourse went. Europeans can make amends for being on the wrong side of history, or alternatively continue their resistance if they were involved in the battle against Nazi Germany. This kind of post-Holocaust solidarity was deeply inscribed in close relations between labour unions and labour parties in Israel and Western Europe, but also involved individual connections between Israelis and socialist kibbutznik volunteers, and movements such as the Western German Aktion Sühnenzeichen (Signs of Atonement) that starting in 1958 sent young German volunteers to work in Israel in order to compensate for the Holocaust.[19]

It was this whole set of relations and inherited guilt and atonement that Palestine solidarity rebelled against. Holocaust continued to matter, but in the time of decolonial struggle, ‘never again’ could no longer be a ‘never again’ reserved for the Jewish people, but rather a slogan for all peoples suffering from expulsion, persecution, stigmatisation, and racialised violence. We see this point hammered home in the vast amount of material produced by the PLO Research Center and the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut, and repeated by solidarity movements, including analyses of “the Zionist Mind,”[20] Zionism and Apartheid,[21] Zionist diplomacy,[22] Zionist terror,[23] and many other shades of Zionism. As Gilbert Achcar has shown, much of this material was written primarily in English with a foreign audience in mind. From the very moment of its birth, PLO members knew how important it was to communicate correctly about the Holocaust and Zionism.[24] 

Historical Materialist Readings of the Middle East Conflict

The June War in 1967 made many on the Left question the previously taken-for-granted understanding of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East and Palestinians as “Arabs” who were either refugees in need of aid or terrorists threatening Israel’s existence. The change of mind was perhaps less dramatic in Scandinavia than in post-Holocaust Germany, but still significant enough to rouse suspicion and allegations of an underlying antisemitic motive from the beginning. Pro-Palestine groups in Scandinavia faced societies deeply embedded in sympathy for Israel. Even after 1967, state and private media continued to be dominated by pro-Israeli leanings. The Israeli labour party Mapai, which ruled Israel from 1948 to 1977 (after 1968 as the Labour Party), had institutional links with the Scandinavian Social Democrats, and the original Danish and Norwegian New Left parties (both called SF, short for Socialist People’s Party) created similar connections with their Israeli equivalent Mapam. To the left of Mapam, the Communist party Matzpen cultivated links with Palestinians and promoted a radical critique of Zionism, but this critique rarely reached a wider European leftist audience before 1967. Much more influential in Europe than Matzpen, Mapam and Mapai ran their own kibbutzim where thousands of young Europeans spent time in what they saw as a socialist microcosmos, places that served, as the Danish counterculture intellectual Ebbe Reich wrote in 1965, as “promising alternatives to the individualised life of Western society”.[25] The Communist parties in Scandinavia, as in all of Europe, kept close to the pro-Arab Soviet line in the conflict. The Soviet Union supported Egyptian and Arab League leadership, as opposed to the after 1965 increasingly vocal and independent PLO. However, this did not keep many communists from empathizing with the Palestinians’ plight and stressing their right to command their own struggle diplomatically and militarily. As a result, some eventually broke away from their party as part of the general upheaval of the New Left.

Since none of the established parties mobilized around Palestine, they left a fertile ground for the student protest movement and associated Marxist-Leninist groupuscules, as they were known in France. The Chinese position of supporting the PLO as part of a global emphasis on popular resistance and “people’s war” naturally attracted students who had wandered into new Maoist organisations. These were the milieus in which preparatory committees for Palestine solidarity movements developed. In fact, the Norwegian Palestine Committee, founded in October 1970, was almost uniquely associated with the Norwegian Maoist party AKP. The Swedish Palestine Groups (Palestinagrupperna) - various local branches that were not unified as PGS before 1975 – also had a heavy Maoist leaning. These first Palestine activists had to take an oppositional stance vis-a-vis many of their own comrades, some of whom remained skeptical about adopting a wholesale critique of Israel.

Morten Thing has provided an insightful account of this schism on the Left. Hailing from a Jewish background sympathetic to Communism, Thing was also active in the youth group Socialist Youth Front (SUF) and had, as was de rigeur, spent time in a kibbutz in the mid-1960s. After the June War in 1967, he began to question the basic belief that Israel in 1948 had indeed been “a land without people for a people without a land.” He began to criticize Israel’s occupation and the very nature of Zionism. He discovered Matzpen and wrote about them in the Danish press. Others on the Left joined him in developing a vocabulary drawing on writers like the French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson, who, inspired by Fayez Sayigh, articulated the notion of settler colonialism in an essay in Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous journalLes Temps Modernes immediately after the June 1967 war. Rodinson also wrote powerfully about the danger of amalgamating all kinds and degrees of enmity against Jews whatever the circumstances into one timeless, global nation. Particularly in light of the Holocaust, Rodinson argued, such a ‘nationalising’ approach risks lumping all expressions of hostility towards Jews, even those of the pre-Holocaust period, into one experience: the threat of total extermination. As several historians have shown, this is a gross misrepresentation of the complexities of Arab-Jewish relations before, during, and after the Shoah.[26]

This early critique and theorization of anti-Zionism can be tracked in the journal Politisk Revy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a Danish equivalent ofLe Novel Observateur where leading Danish intellectuals of the New Left like Thing published their essays. The journal dedicated its July 1970 issue to the question of antisemitism and the Middle East conflict. The issue provides a detailed overview of positions towards antisemitism on the Danish New Left at the time. In a review of the Swedish Maoist Staffan Beckman’s influential booksPalestine and US Imperialism andPalestine and Israel: a Left Analysis, member of the Palestine Committees Niels Frølich notes that since 1967, the Left in Europe and the US has had to revise its view of Israel and Zionism. This “awakening” has modified “the often idealistic and un-dialectical notion of history” ignoring “economic structure, class struggle, and the development of the productive forces.”[27] In another article in the issue, Jacques Hersh unfolds a Marxist analysis of Jewish history, drawing mainly on the work of the Jewish Trotskyite Abraham Leon, who was killed by the Nazis in 1942, and the Belgian Jewish historian Nathan Weinstock.[28] They both stress the economic specialisation of Jewish diasporas that, from the late Middle Ages, led to direct competition with native merchants. The competition over resources more than religious hatred provided the base structure for pogroms. Their exposed position effectively locked Jews in many European countries into positions as money lenders and economic advisors to the ruling class, making them complicit in exploitation. In Marxist terminology, we can say that Hersh supports the view that antisemitism is a superstructure for the base of European Jewry’s historical affiliation with feudalism and, later, capitalism. The competition between native and Jewish bourgeoisie in early capitalism explains why the Jewish Question appears in the early 19th century, merging socialist and nationalist anxieties, and eventually eliciting a mirror-image response in the form of Zionism. In conclusion, Hersh writes, “Zionism was and is the attempt by European Jews to resolve the Jewish Question without changing the [capitalist] societal structures that created the problem.” Socialism, and a democratic Palestine for Jews and Arabs alike, would be the solution that Zionism eschews.

This reading does not seek to pardon antisemitism but to provide a materialist reading that relativises Jewish history. Antisemitism in this interpretation is not innate or cultural, even if it may appear as such. Rather, as any form of racism, it is rooted in economic structures. This deconstructive approach to Zionism was shared by Palestinian thinkers like Ghassan Kanafani, whose work engages deeply with Jewish history and the logic of Zionism. Reporting from Beirut for Politisk Revy, his Danish wife Anni Kanafani stressed in her contribution to the special issue that the Jewish experience is not unique. When Zionists claim that antisemitism is an inevitable product of Jews living outside of their national home, Anni Kanafani wrote, they forget that “hostilities usually ensue when a large amount of immigrants, such as Italians or Irish in the USA, settle.”[29]

For many, this logic of relativisation ultimately extended to the Holocaust, which they argued should not be seen as a unique historical experience, but alongside and related with the Nakba – the eviction of Palestinians in 1948. This was perhaps the most difficult argument for Palestine activists to defend in Europe. To this day, the idea that the Nakba and the Holocaust can and should be read as interlinked historical events animates strong responses, as evidenced from the reaction to the recent bookThe Holocaust and the Nakba : A New Grammar of Trauma and History edited by Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg.[30] First published in Hebrew in 2015, the book brings Jewish and Arab intellectuals together to discuss the conflicting narratives of their respective traumatic experience. While it generated much positive debate in Israel and elsewhere, it also deeply provoked those for whom the Holocaust is a sui generis atrocity.

Anti-Zionism in the 1970s

What can be said and what can only be thought when it comes to Israel, Zionism, and antisemitism? How much self-censoring is appropriate, and to what extent should Jewish sensitivities extend to other publics, and indeed to a global public? These questions tend to be answered more cautiously today than fifty years ago. Palestine solidarity provided a brash and frank critique that ignored set cultural norms, in an optimistic belief that confrontational activism could turn the tide of popular opinion, and that speaking truth, no matter what, would be liberating. The Danish Palestine Committee in the very first issue of their magazine Falastin published an article that outlined their understanding of the Israeli state as Zionist, as opposed to the Jewish people of Israel with whom neither Palestinians nor the Committee had a problem as such. “Many people mistakenly think that Judaism and Zionism are one and the same. This is not so. Judaism is a religion of great importance. Jews are considered members of a religious community, but are neither nationally nor ethnically connected to their fellow believers in other countries. (...) Zionism on the other and is an international political movement which, due to ostensible ethnic and national ties, seeks to unite all Jews in a worldwide organization.”[31] According to the PFLP-affiliated Palestine Committee, Zionism was not just ideologically problematic as a form of anti-universalistic, racist nationalism, but also served as a connecting point to imperialist powers, not least Great Britain and the USA. Danish activists saw Zionism as the primary identification for Israel’s colonial extensions abroad. For example, they consistently dubbed the center-left newspaper Politiken as the ”Zionist outlet,” due to its editor in chief Herbert Pundik, a Danish-Israeli dual citizen who in the 1970s defended Israel staunchly (and later admitted that he worked for the Mossad during this period).[32] In this way, left-wing activists made Palestine part of an already established anti-imperialist struggle that also involved confronting parties, institutions and individuals on the Left who supported Israel. 

The critique of Zionism took several forms. As we have seen, Marxian journals like Politisk Revy andFolkFronten gave space to long, theoretical interventions that analysed Zionism from a historical materialist perspective. Political meetings and demonstrations, pamphlets, solidarity magazines and speeches condensed the critique to slogans and short formulations. As an example, the following speech was given by writer Lars Bonnevie during a May 1971 demonstration organized by the Palestine Committee in Copenhagen. Reproducing Hersh’ argument almost ad verbatim, Bonnevie calls Zionism “the result of contradictions in capitalist society.” Antisemitism, he continues, “spawned its own tragic mirror image: Zionism. Both are equally an expression of the ugliest trait of bourgeois society: racism.” Having set the historical frames for his speech, Bonnevie continues:

You cannot be in solidarity with Vietnam if you don’t support Palestine. You cannot be in solidarity with the freedom struggle of the Third World if you are not in solidarity with Palestine. It is the Vietnam of the Middle East. The same struggle. It is a long people’s war, fought by the broad masses. It is a struggle that inscribes itself in the worldwide confrontation with imperialism. It is a struggle that expands the political consciousness of the people and teaches it to trust its own power.[33]

The speech highlights the generative power of struggling against Zionism, both in terms of connecting to global struggles and in terms of connecting ‘the people’ with its potentials for political consciousness and mobilization. To unlearn Zionism, people had to learn globally applicable theories of capitalism and imperialism that gave direction to the struggle. 

The Backlash: Advocacy and Hasbara in the 1970s

Unlearning Zionism required knowledge of its historical provenance, but also its contemporary manifestations. To that effect, the Palestine Committee published a special issue of Falastin dedicated to Zionism in Danish schoolbooks [Fig. 5]. In this little pamphlet, the authors methodically go through the most common textbooks on Israel and the Middle East conflict, illustrating and picking apart the Zionist logic that underpins learning material.[34] They correct facts as they go along and provide references to other books with a more truthful rendition of history. This deconstruction shows how 1948 in all Danish schoolbooks was rendered as a Jewish war for survival triggered by Arab aggression; how Palestinians featured as poor refugees in need of UN aid and development; and how Israeli society was presented as advanced and justified in its defense against Palestinians. Equally glaring, the pamphlet finds, is the absence of massacres such as Deir Yassin in 1948 where Zionist paramilitary groups Irgun and Lehi killed at least 107 Palestinians, including women and children, but also the political history and transformation of Palestinians since 1967, and indeed any mention of the occupation. The booklet concludes with a historical timeline that sets the record straight for the reader, and then describes the emergence of the PFLP, the principal partner of the Danish Palestine Committee.

Fig 5 SH

Whether this effort had much of an impact beyond a small crowd (the booklet had a print run of 400 copies) is questionable. But it inspired other attempts to reach the broader public. One of them was a string of documentary films about Palestine produced and shown in Denmark in the mid-1970s. Palestinian efforts to educate and counter Israeli propaganda internationally was concentrated in the Palestinian Film Unit, set up in Jordan in 1969 and integrated into the PLO with the aim of winning international sympathy and solidarity by showing Palestine as one dialect in a global language of anti-colonial struggle. The Vietnam war, the world’s first mass-mediated conflict, had proven the ability of living images to influence public opinion. Palestinian directors produced films and circulated them internationally but also worked with foreign directors. One of them was Danish filmmaker Nils Vest, who supported the Palestine Committee early on and in the following years went on to produce two widely watched documentary films in 1973 and 1975, the latter of which sparked huge controversy. The production, reception, and public debate surrounding An Oppressed People is Always Right shows how the anti-Zionist campaign developed after the initial spark, and how the late 1970s eventually saw the rise of a coordinated counter-campaign. I analyse this debate here to show the strengths and limitations of 1970s activism, the rise ofhasbara as a response to it, and the place of antisemitism.

The title “An Oppressed People is Always Right” neatly summarises the central ideological position of the global New Left that led it to support Palestine. Marxists and anti-imperialist like Vest came to the cause of Palestine with a pre-set interpretive framework but were also committed to let the militants formulate their own struggle. The film was shot in Lebanon in October 1974, in close cooperation with al-Fateh. A cousin of Ghassan Kanafani, Nabil Kanafani, who had also edited Falastin, acted as advisor and facilitator in the preparation stage, thus aligning the film with the PFLP’s particular articulation of Marxism. Over the following year, Vest edited the film before showing it to the public in November 1975. In 44 minutes, the film creates a counter-narrative to the Zionist-influenced schoolbooks thatFalastin exposed. Interlaced with interviews of Palestinian fighters in Lebanon, daily life in refugee camps, and images of Israeli bombardments of Nabatiyyeh in May 1974, the film recounts the expulsion of 1948, the Zionist ideology of Israel, and the birth of armed resistance. It also focuses on the role of Palestinian women in the PLO and their attempt to liberate themselves from traditional norms through the armed struggle [fig. 6]. Finally, it connects the Palestinian armed struggle to liberation wars in the Third World. The director himself was unapologetic about his intentions, which were never to produce an “objective” documentary but “to try to communicate my impression of the Palestinians as I met them in Lebanon. I have taken their side quite clearly, because I believe that a great injustice has been, and is still being, committed against them. In the same way that I would take any oppressed people’s side, no matter their religion or colour of skin.”[35] This counter-narrative was necessary, he stated, because of the lack of Arab and Palestinian voices in the Danish public, which is much more attuned to Israeli views. Add to that the “chronic bad conscience about the murder of Jews during Second World War” and fear of being labelled antisemitic, which “tends to make people shut up. Or go even further and become anti-Arab. Which is of course not nearly as incriminating [in the eyes of ordinary Danes].”[36]

Fig 6 SH

In April 1976, the film was distributed for showings across Denmark in schools and public libraries through the Danish State Film Central (SFC), a state-run organization with a large influence over public education in the 1960s and 1970s. SFC also funded the film. The general scandal that ensued in Danish media and politics over the film ran over several years and resulted in the state forcing SFC to withdraw the film and replace it with an edited version.[37] The debate brought out Jewish and pro-Israeli organisations and individuals in a coordinated attack that drew the lines sharply between supporters of Israel and Palestine and forced some on the Left to take a more cautious approach.

The main pro-Israeli voices were the Danish Zionist Union, Danish-Israeli Association, The Conservative Youth Party, The Jewish Youth Association’s Cultural Group, and various Danish Jewish intellectuals including Herbert Pundik, the editor of Politiken. Their argument was, in short, that the film was heavily skewed, used false material and argumentation, and that SFC had become a tool in the hands of radical Marxists. In a December 31, 1976, article in the conservative newspaper Weekendavisen Gert Glick of the Jewish Youth Association claimed to have proof that the film falsified historical material. He and others writing in the months following the release took offense with the linking of Zionism and imperialism and demanded that the film be withdrawn. In early 1977, the documentation was presented to SFC, and the Minister of Culture was subsequently drawn into the case. A legal examination concluded that the charges were unfounded. However, the attacks in the press continued across Denmark, even in local newspapers many of which raised charges of anti-Jewish sentiments against “the leftist cultural elite” and their “anti-Israeli propaganda film.” And on January 24, 1977, the conservative dailyBerlingske Tidende published an op-ed accusing Vest of antisemitism. Vest responded, as did other leftist intellectuals, but the Minister of Culture was eventually forced to intervene and in March 1977 the film was removed from distribution and did not reappear before late 1978 in an edited version.

The debate is notable because it marks a moment when the sometimes ‘sectarian’ Marxian critique of Israel – with its small magazines and initiated groupuscules - entered the mass public through the public institution of SDF. This prompted a counterattack that showcased the presence and political clout of the pro-Israeli line in Denmark, and in doing so arguably caused it to grow into a more organised structure. The influence of the New Left in the cultural and media field notwithstanding, Zionist influence had proven itself strong enough to counter and eventually – at least partly – repel the attempt to shape mass opinion in favour of Palestinians. They had used the antisemitic slur to good effect, and although Vest and his defenders on the Left argued their case, some of the suspicion inevitably stuck with them, along with other associated suspicions of ‘working for the enemy’ that were so characteristic of the Cold War. Were these ‘activists’ really representing foreign interests (a question rarely asked about the pro-Israeli side)? Were they democratically minded? If not, perhaps that explained whyAn Oppressed People is Always Right won a gold medal at the 1976 film festival in Bagdad, as one critic wrote surlily inPolitiken.

This association with Arab anti-democratic political culture and antisemitism became a running theme of hasbara in Denmark. It only intensified over the years, culminating in April 1989 when the so-called Blekingegade-gang was arrested after killing a police officer in failed bank robbery in November 1988. The ensuing court case drew attention to the Maoist organization KAK which, starting at the very solidarity conference in Amman in 1970 that opened this article, had operated a criminal underground organisation for 19 years funneling money to the PFLP and working closely with Wadie Haddad, head of the PFLP splinter group that planned plane-jackings. One of the scandalous findings in the court case and the journalistic uncovering of the ‘gang’ that followed was a project to compile a list of Danes with Zionist sympathies and links to the Israeli state. The so-called “Z-files” were ordered by the PFLP operative Marwan Fahoum and eventually handed over by the gang member Bo Weymann via agents in Damascus. Weymann, whose confession in front of a camera was broadcast as a documentary in 2009, proclaims to have had no antisemitic motives, even if he did realise in hindsight that he should have made the connection between his activities and possible antisemitic intentions of his Palestinian comrades.[38] Although we do not know what this list was intended for, many Danish journalists and commentators interpreted the “Z-files” as a potential hit-list when the story broke in the early 1990s.

The portended antisemitism at the root of this affair became the ‘smoking gun’ of the Dansh radical Left’s complicity in Arab antisemitism with explicit reference to the Nazi era’s persecution of Jews. In the context of the end of the Cold War, the Blekingegade-case was used by revanchist right-wing intellectuals to solidify the association between the Marxist Left and anti-democratic, anti-humanist thought and practice. Palestine’s friends in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe had finally been exposed as useful idiots for sinister terrorists. After September 11, 2001, this discourse only increased, intersecting with the Israeli state narratives of being a bulwark against Islamist forces threatening Europe and the free world. While these tendencies far from put an end to Palestine solidarity, as witnessed by recurrent demonstrations, Freedom for movement runs in Palestine, the flotilla to Gaza, and various other forms of activism in the 2000s, they gradually changed the problem space of antisemitism, while the early 1970s faded into memory.       

Conclusion: Lessons for today

How does the frank and direct anti-Zionism of the 1970s analysed in this article compare to the situation today? On the one hand, the linking and ‘frame bridging’ between Black Lives Matter and Palestine solidarity during the protests of spring and summer 2021 was reminiscent of alliances on the anti-imperialist Left in the 1970s. On the other hand, Palestine solidarity today is also increasingly conditioned by the sensitivities fed by the IHRA definition of antisemitism. In the early 1970s, activists pulled no punches when they attacked Zionism. Reading their texts, which rarely if ever cross the line to antisemitism per se, it is almost as if the activists drew strength from the central and easily categorisable nature of Zionism. It provided a focal point for the thoughts and practices that activists struggled against and therefore gave them an easy frame of reference. In short, it made imperialism a concrete reality beyond just American military intervention. The internationalist, materialist reading lifted Zionism out of the problem space of the Jewish Question and sheltered the solidarity activists, so they thought, from allegations of antisemitism. Activists were encouraged by the broad vague of new Marxism making inroads in academia, writing, art, and popular culture.

A straight comparison between 1970 and today may be unjust. The international context was very different at the heigh of decolonisation which provided African, Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations leverage in international organisations, not least the UN. The push to connect Zionism with racism started in Palestinian groups but gathered momentum in coordination with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. This campaign culminated in the 1975 UN General Assembly Resolution no. 3379 determining that “Zionism is a form of racism and racist discrimination”. Israel reacted furiously and proceeded to rename “The UN Avenue” in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv “The Zionism Avenue”. Apart from Cyprus, no Western European country supported the resolution, which was later abandoned in 1991, after Israel made that a condition for participating in the Madrid peace conference. But the resolution shows that Third World solidarity including solidarity movements in the West and (at times) East Bloc countries provided a powerful counterpoint to Western hegemony. The remnants of these structures lived on after the end of the Cold War but provided much less diplomatic and economic clout. Instead of formalised partnerships between Palestinian parties, self-declared “progressive” states, and solidarity movements, Palestine solidarity had to reinvent itself in the form of the International Solidarity Movement and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions alliances between Palestinian and international grassroots organisations. The contemporary struggle over the definition of antisemitism must be seen in light of this altered balance of power which is related to geopolitical shifts and the transformation of Third Worldism after the end of the 1970s.[39]    

At the grassroot level, as this article has shown, the New Left played a central role in formulating a response to the charge of antisemitism. The transgression of accepted norms and the ability to stick it to ‘the man’ and bourgeois society was at the heart the New Left’s aesthetics and ideology. The fact that their Israel critique provoked the establishment as well as much of European society and ‘old Left’ parties like the Communist Party pleased activists in Denmark and elsewhere. Palestine activists did, however, also react to events and take sensibilities into consideration. In the summer of 1972, as Nils Vest was preparing to launch his first Palestine film, Denmark-Palestine – Same Struggle (1973), the Munich massacre took place. Most solidarity activists condemned the attacks, as did al-Fateh. But they did raise principal questions over the use of violence. The initial idea, Vest remembers, was to produce a poster that would illustrate “that Danes and Palestinians have a joint interest in fighting imperialism. [The art director] suggested a money bag wearing a top hat [symbolising capitalists] being attacked by armed men.” But after Munich happened, “we chose another poster with a less aggressive expression.”[40]

This kind of light editing was never enough to please their opponents. They wanted delegitimisation and, preferably, silencing. Sometimes they went further and tried to frame Palestine activists as antisemites. The wholesale attack on Zionism, which I have analysed in this article, provoked severe counterattacks. To Israel and its supporters, anti-Zionism represented a significant threat for several reasons. First, it created a conceptual focal point that tied in with the political agenda of Palestinian groups. Secondly, it tapped into the energies of anti-imperialism, Marxism, and youth rebellion. While those forces lost steam in the 1980s, the revanchist energy and organisation of hasbara only grew, powered by Israeli state funding. However, as Miriyam Aouragh has shown, the results are not always as intended, and the dialectics of denial and presence are often paradoxical. Arguments designed to undermine counterarguments can unintendedly back them up. A central claim of the IHRA definition is that there are antisemites hiding behind an anti-Zionist mask. But that argument seems to imply that anti-Zionism is not per se antisemitic and first must be de-masked or provoked to reveal its ‘true’ intentions. By focusing so intensely on anti-Zionism, its adversaries – whether it is Israeli interest organisations, the press, or security services – inadvertently shine light on the critique that they seek to conceal. Just as Zionism needs its other – antisemitism – to thrive,hasbara often destabilises Israel’s diplomacy by exposing settler colonialism.[41] Suppression of solidarity for Palestine stimulates criticism and may, in turn, help to shift public opinion. Looking back at the history of Palestine solidarity today on the backdrop of a bleak political reality of occupation, this dialectics of protest and propaganda may be the silver lining.


Aouragh, Miriyam. 2016. “Hasbara 2.0: Israel’s Public Diplomacy in the Digital Age,” Middle East Critique 25 (3), pp. 271-297.

Bashir, Bashir and Goldberg, Amos (eds.). 2019. The Holocaust and the Nakba – a New Grammar of Trauma and History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bashkin, Orit. 2021. “The Colonized Semites and the Infectious Disease: Theorizing and Narrativizing Antisemitism in the Levant, 1870–1914.” Critical Inquiry 47 (2).

Bishuti, Bassam, 1969. The Role of The Zionist Terror in the Creation of Israel. Beirut: Palestine Research Center.

Boum, Aoumar and Abrevaya, Sarah (eds.). 2018. The Holocaust and North Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fine, Robert and Spencer, Philip. 2017. Antisemitism and the Left - On the return of the Jewish question. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Gersoni, Israel. 2014. Arab Responses to Fascism and Nazism

Attraction and Repulsion. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gillou, Jan, 2018. Den som dödar drömmar sover aldrig. Stockholm: Pirat Forlaget.

Haugbolle, Sune, and Rasmus Elling. 2023. “Introduction: The Transformation of Third Worldism in the Middle East. In The Fate of Third Worldism in the Middle East: Iran, Palestine, and beyond, edited by Elling and Haugbolle. London: Oneworld Academic, pp. 1-26.

Judaken, Jonathan. 2006. Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Kyhn, Carsten and Höök, Steffen. 1978. En Undertrykt Sandhed (An Oppressed Truth).Copenhagen: Demos.

Levine, Mark. 2013. Impossible Peace: Israel and Palestine since 1989. London: Zed Books.

Mihr, Anja. 2017. “From Guilty Generation to Expert Generation? Personal Reflections on Second Post-war Generation West German Atonement,” in: Replicating Atonement: Foreign Models in the Commemoration of Atrocities, ed. Micha Gabowitsch. New York: Palgrave, pp. 305-323.

Rodinson, Maxime, 1981. “Antisémitisme éternel ou judéophobies multiples?,” in: Peuple juif ou problème juif? Paris: Maspero, pp. 265-327.

Sayigh, Fayez, 1965. Zionist Colonialism in Palestine. Beirut: PLO Research Center.

Sayigh, Fayez, 1969. The Zionist Diplomacy. Beirut: PLO Research Center.

Stevens, Richard P., 1969. Zionism, South Africa and Apartheid: The Paradoxical Triangle. Beirut: PLO Research Center.

Taylor, Alan R., 1974. The Zionist Mind. Beirut: The Institute for Palestine Studies.

White, Ben. 2020. “Delegitimizing Solidarity: Israel Smears Palestine Advocacy as Antisemitic,” Journal of Palestine Studies vol. 49 (2).

[1] Twenty-four interviews with former and current Palestine solidarity activists were carried out as part of the research project Entangled Histories of Palestine and the New Left, in Denmark and Norway between May 2018 and April 2021. I refer generally to the findings and to more specific interviews when necessary.

[2] Most importantly al-Fateh, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (later DFLP), Palestinian Workers Union and General Union for Palestinian Students.

[3] Chamberlin 2012.

[4] Building on previous existing spaces, such as Algiers, see Byrne 2016.

[5] Judaken 2006, pp. 7-18.

[6] Levine 2013.

[7] Interview with Morten Thing, November 2018.

[8]  Sayigh (1965), p. 51.

[9] Interview with Morten Thing, 17 November 2018.


[11] “Le Fath condamne l’antisémitisme”, Le Monde, 15 May, 1970.

[12] See the work of Orit Bashkin, in particular Bashkin 2021.

[13] “L'appel de Beyrouth condamne toutes les formes "explicites ou cachées" de l'antisémitisme,” Le Monde, 12 May 1970.

[14] White 2020.

[15] Said (1979), p. 8.

[16] Judaken 2006, p. 1-22; Fine and Spencer 2017.

[17] Tire and Spencer 2017, pp. 1-15.

[18] Achcar 2010, p. 39.

[19] Mihr, 2017.

[20] Taylor, 1974.

[21] Stevens, 1969.

[22] Sayigh, 1969.

[23] Bishuti, 1969.

[24] Achcar, 2010, p. 217.

[25] Ebbe Reich: “The Collective as a way of life”, Politisk Revy no. 35, June 1965 p. 9.

[26] Gershoni 2014; Boum and Stein 2018.

[27] Niels Frølich, ”Two books on Palestine”, Politisk Revy, July 1970, p. 3.

[28] Jacques Hersh, ”From antisemitism to Zionism, a Jewish tragedy”, Politisk Revy, July 1970, p. 13.

[29] Anni Kanafani, ”The fate of Palestine and its Future”, Politisk Revy, July 1970, p. 4.

[30] Bashir and Goldberg 2019.

[31]Falastin issue 1, 1970, p. 3.

[32] Lasse Ellegaard, ”Ja, jeg var agent for Mossad.” [Yes, I was a Mossad agent]. Interview with Herbert Pundik in the Danish newspaper Information, 27 February 2010.

[33] Lars Bonnevie’s speech at the Palestine Demonstration May 1971, Falastin 8, 1971, pp. 5-7.

[34]Falastin, special booklet, ”Zionism in Danish Schoolbooks – Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” 2nd edition 1974.

[35] Niels Vest quoted in Kyhn and Höök, 1975, p. 52.

[36] Ibid.

[37] The debate is documented and analyses in Kyhn and Höök 1978, pp. 54-95.

[38] ”Blekingegadebanden” – TV documentary in two parts aired on Danmarks Radio, March 2009.

[39] Haugbolle and Elling 2023, pp. 1-26.

[40] Niels Vest, 2015.,40aarefter.html

[41] Aouragh 2016.

Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism

Sai Englert and Alex de Jong

01 September 2023

Antisemitism has grown exponentially over the last decade or so. While it has done so in tandem with other forms of racism, oppression, and prejudice, fuelled by a growing global far right, its recent trajectory from the periphery to the centre of Western racist ideas, discourse, and action deserves attention.

In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, antisemitism could easily be considered to have become a fringe phenomenon. The Holocaust and its memory were central – as they still are – to Western states’ self-image, not without irony (forgetting in the process that European ruling classes had fuelled antisemitism throughout the continent and supported fascism and Nazism as a counter force to the threat of Communism at home and abroad).[1]

Simultaneously, a newly rising far-right appeared to have abandoned antisemitism altogether – or at the very least having pushed it to the outer edges of its political organisations. This process was most strikingly captured by the struggle within the French National Front (now renamed the National Rally), between Le Pen father and daughter, over the place of antisemitism in the party and the centrality of Islamophobia as a mobilising mechanism.[2]

Yet, perhaps predictably, the stronger the far-right became, the bolder it grew and ideas that were previously considered to be incompatible with ‘dediabolisation’ resurfaced. Antisemitism reappeared more obviously within its arsenal and continues to be normalised as far-right parties take power (Hungary, Italy, Brazil, India) or exert growing influence on elected officials (the US government under Trump and most European countries). We are now in a situation in which antisemitic violence carried out against Jewish people and places of worship repeatedly occur, most strikingly in France and the United States, while antisemitic ideas about ‘globalists’ and other ‘Jewish space lasers’ have taken central stage in the far-right’s rhetoric. They played a central role in the election of Donald Trump, are reappearing in the Tory right, and are now a regular feature in the public pronouncements of the Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands, to name but a few.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


The Left

In the face of such a striking and worrying phenomenon, one could be forgiven to assume that the response of those who claim to maintain the liberal status quo would have been swift and uncompromising. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. While playing into the hands of the far-right on issues of migration, Islamophobia, trans-rights, and law-and-order narratives – thereby severely constraining their ability to challenge its rise – centrist politicians, journalists, and commentators have turned their ire against the left and its support for Palestinian liberation instead. Through conflations of antisemitism with anti-Zionism – itself based on the antisemitic notion that Jews everywhere and the state of Israel are synonymous – pro-Israeli activists and lawmakers have constructed a narrative that the real danger to Jewish people in the West are not those violently targeting them or resuscitating old and dangerous conspiracy theories, but left-wing parties, movements, and organisations. It is worth restating in passing that, more often than not, the very same organisations are at the forefront of the fight against the growth of the former.

While pro-Israeli – or indeed Israeli – politicians continue to cosy up with far-right demagogues (Steve Bannon), far-right governments (Italy and Hungary) or antisemitic politicians (Poland), they simultaneously aim to institutionalise the criminalisation of pro-Palestinian voices and movements as a threat to the Jewish people. They have done so through the widely discredited International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working-definition of antisemitism (most recently rejected by the UN special rapporteur), as well as decrees aiming to outlaw the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in France, Germany, Austria, numerous US states, Canada, and (so-far unsuccessfully) Britain.[3] 

The story of the “Hijacking Memory: The Holocaust and the New Right” conference is a useful illustration in this regard.[4] Organisers and participants – among the leading specialists in the field – gathered in Berlin to discuss the importance of Holocaust memory and its (mis)use by the political right, including the growing threat of outright Holocaust revisionism. One solitary contribution in the three-day conference came from a Palestinian participant, Dr Tareq Baconi,[5] who pointed out the dangers of weaponising Holocaust memory in order to deny the Palestinian people’s right to liberation. Nothing, at first glance, controversial or out of place given the conference’s stated aims. Yet, first Baconi and then the conference organisers, were accused of antisemitism, dragged through the German press, and the venue where the conference was held was even threatened with losing its funding by the state. The real danger in the eyes of the German establishment were not those weaponising or trivialising the Holocaust. It was the very people targeted by said weaponisation.[6]

The tendency to flip reality on its head in order to delegitimise the left – and any anti-systemic critique that it might offer in a time of simultaneous ecological, economic, and political crisis – was perhaps most visible in the sustained campaign waged by pro-Israeli organisations and right-wing politicians (in both the Labour and Conservative parties) against Jeremy Corbyn.[7] A life-long campaigner against racism and antisemitism was vilified as an existential threat to the Jewish people, while Tory politicians built statues to Nazi-sympathisers and maintained friendly relations with Steve Bannon and Viktor Orban.[8] Unfortunately, many on the left similarly failed to see the wood for the trees and participated in the construction of a narrative of a specific, if not primary, left-wing problem with antisemitism.[9]

This issue is certainly not limited to Britain, or to those who failed to understand the attacks on Corbyn, the left, and the Palestine solidarity movement for what they were. As Leandros Fischer reminds us in his paper, the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, the characterisation of Palestine solidarity activism and migration as the sources of contemporary European antisemitism, and the failure to challenge the (often pro-Israel) far-right as the key driver of antisemitic reaction has a long history on the left, especially in Germany. In dissecting the political history and theory of the anti-German current, he offers us the tools to understand, critique, and challenge these wider processes that have become so familiar, well beyond the borders of the German state. Jean-Pierre Couture, in focussing on France and the specific history of the systematic (and wilful) misreadings of Marx, recasting the radical thinker and the movements that take inspiration from his thought as antisemites, similarly helps us make sense of the current impasse and the intellectual tools necessary to break out of it.

This is where the impulse for this special issue is located. How to make sense of the contemporary rapid growth of antisemitism, its importance in the rise of the (far-)right, and the striking inability to name, locate, and fight it effectively that has paralysed much of the left? What can Marxism offer us in this process, beyond the well-rehearsed reflections on the Marxist classics of the beginning of the twentieth century? And if these classics remain of importance to our present moment, how are we to understand, engage with, and mobilise them today? How can the left rebuild an analysis of contemporary antisemitism – and social movements against it – which neither counterpose it to support for Palestinian liberation, nor isolate it from wider structures of racialised, gendered, or sexual oppression, discrimination, and violence. It is in the hope of addressing these issues – or at least to offer an impetus to the necessary discussion and debates surrounding them – that we put together this collection of essays. We hope that they will elicit critical engagement, reflection, and responses in the months and years to come.

Marxism and the Jewish Question

When discussing a Marxist approach to the issue of antisemitism, a number of texts are widely shared reference points. This special issue contains papers discussing two of such texts; Marx's essay 'On the Jewish Question' (written in 1843, published in 1844) and Moishe Postone's 1979 essay 'Anti-Semitism and National Socialism'.[10]  Both contain valuable insights but need to be read in their historical context.

Out of all of Marx’s writings, this article might be the most misunderstood. ‘On The Jewish Question’ has often been read as showing antisemitic tendencies in Marx’s thought, or even as proof of the thesis of ‘an antisemitic Marx’ as Couture writes in his article on ‘The French Debate on ‘Zur Judenfrage’: From an Anachronistic Trial to the Crisis of Secularism’. For a supporter of this thesis, like historian Pierre Birnbaum in his Géographie de l’espoir, ‘Marx advocated nothing less than the necessary and unavoidable end of the Jews’[11].

Many readings of 'On the Jewish Question' are in fact anachronistic, missing the emergence of a specific, modern form of antisemitism. As Postone pointed out, ‘modern anti-Semitism’ (a term popularised in Germany in the early 1880’s by the agitator Wilhelm Marr)[12] should not be confused with ‘everyday anti-Jewish prejudice’ – it rather is an ideology, a form of thought, which emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century.[13] Although building on older forms of Christian hostility towards Jews, modern antisemitism drew on a wider field of references, themes, and identities than only the religious, such as national belonging and ‘scientific’ notions of race.[14] A lack of attention to the historical specificity of modern antisemitism is part of the explanation for the many misreadings of ‘On the Jewish Question’.

To understand ‘On the Jewish Question’, it is necessary to keep the polemical character of the text in mind.[15] 'On the Jewish Question' was Marx’ response to two articles by Bruno Bauer that had appeared in the two previous years, ‘Die Judenfrage’ [The Jewish Question, 1842] and ‘Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden’ [The capacity of today’s Jews and Christians to become free, 1843]. Before the break between the two authors in 1842, Bauer had been Marx’s closest friend, and he likely exercised a lasting influence on Marx’ conception of critique.[16] Bauer argued that political emancipation entailed human emancipation but would only be possible after the state and its citizens had become ‘emancipated’ from religion.[17] To become ‘truly’ free, the Jews needed to renounce Judaism, and the constitutional state needed to renounce Christianity. Any attempt by Jews to maintain themselves as a group defined by religion was incompatible with such emancipation.

Marx rejected this thesis and argued that the ideas of liberal democracy, such as freedom and equality, in practice are embedded in the bourgeois right to private property:

But, the right of man [menschenrecht] to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property.

What constitutes man’s right to private property? […] The right of man to private property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion (à son gré), without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realisation of his own freedom, but thebarrier to it.[18]

According to Daniel Bensaïd, ‘On the Jewish Question’ marked a decisive moment in Marx’s surpassing of radical liberalism and its illusions.[19] It is the starting point of Marx’s critique of the limits of the French Revolution, of the democratic state, and human rights.[20] In this special issue, Igor Shoikhedbrod shows how Bauer’s opposition to the equal rights of Jews ‘is used by Marx as a foil for dissecting the potential and limitations of political emancipation within the framework of the modern constitutional state’ while simultaneously recognising the necessity of such emancipation, thereby informing a ‘Marxist internationalism – one that is sensitive to the global history of persecution and oppression’.

‘On the Jewish Question’ is first of all a critique of the limits of political emancipation, and was, perhaps unfortunately, of limited use for Marxist movements that were confronted, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the rise of modern antisemitism. The leaders and thinkers of these movements initially interpreted antisemitism as a response to economic crises and increased competition between different parts of the petite bourgeoisie. One of the most prominent leaders of the German SPD in that period, August Bebel, claimed that only in 1877 antisemitism came out in the open as a political current in Germany. According to Bebel this was the ‘natural effect and consequence of the economic conditions’ that arose after the crash of 1873. It was economic misery and precarity that made the middle-layers of society susceptible to demagogues who scapegoated ‘Jewish’ exploitation. An accident of European history meant that Christian religious hostility against Jews had as an effect that they were over-represented in economic middle layers, in roles associated with finance and trade, and they thereby appeared as convenient scapegoats.

This economic misery was however inescapable as capitalist development increasingly rendered intermediate social layers obsolete. According to Bebel, this meant that antisemitism itself was doomed to become obsolete as its bankruptcy would be revealed by the development of capitalism itself. Even expelling all Jews from German areas, Bebel concluded, ‘would not change the foundations of our society by one inch’; ‘not the Jews, but capitalism is the enemy of the anti-Semitic middle-layers’. It was inevitable that the ‘declining middle-layers’ would increasingly realise this; ‘and they will then come to the realisation that they have not only to fight against the Jewish capitalist, but against the rule of the capitalist class’. At this point, ‘against its will and by necessity’, antisemitism would ‘become revolutionary, and thus play into the hands of us, the Social Democracy.’[21]

Bebel’s faith that the development of capitalism would force even antisemitism to play into the hands of socialism was an extreme example of a belief in progress that characterised much of the Marxist approach in this period. In ‘Rasse und Judentum’ [Race and Jewishness] from 1914, Karl Kautsky likewise expected that capitalist development would inexorably lead to the assimilation of Jews into wider society, thereby dissolving their difference and antisemitic hostility towards it. It had been in the interest of the development of industrial capitalism that the walls around the Jewish ghettos had come down in Europe, and the further development of capitalism towards socialism would end the last vestiges of antisemitism.[22] Antisemitism was the regressive ideology of an outdated petite bourgeoisie, and especially in Tsarist Russia a device with which the state tried to divide the working class. Kautsky denied any historical resilience to the social and cultural distinctions of Jewish populations. Because of their specific social and economic functions and antisemitic hostility towards them, Jews formed a ‘caste’, according to Kausky. Otto Bauer shared a similar approach, explaining the existence of Jews as a national group in historical terms, as supposedly the outcome of their role as merchants in pre-capitalist societies.[23]

‘Only in the ghetto,’ argued Kautsky, ‘in enforced isolation from their environment and under political pressure, without rights and amid hostility, does Jewishness persist.’ Wherever Jews were treated as free and equal, it supposedly dissolved as class contradictions developed among the Jewish population along parallel lines as in the rest of society.[24] The way to their liberation, and hence their assimilation, for Jews was participation in the proletarian class struggle.[25] As individuals, Jews had played revolutionary roles in the workers’ movement, Kautsky recognized, but Jewishness was only reactionary, a ‘feudal remnant’ that ought to disappear ‘the earlier, the better’ for the whole of society, clearing the way for the creation of a higher form of societal organisation.[26]

Bebel’s and Kautsky’s approach was shared by later writers. Otto Heller, a faithful Stalinist, in ‘Der Untergang des Judentums’ [The Decline of Jewishness] (1930) added that the Jewish question was partly a national one. ‘The demise of Jewishness in its social conception’ according to Heller meant ‘the dissolving of the Jewish cast, bourgeois emancipation and assimilation of the Jews in the West; the solution of the Jewish question where it is simultaneously a social and national question, in the East, through the proletarian revolution: all of this destroys the social preconditions for the return of antisemitism’.[27]

As Traverso writes in his survey of the Marxists and the Jewish Question, the ‘classic’ approach to antisemitism probably found its most sophisticated example in the work of Abram Leon, a young Polish Jewish intellectual who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 26.[28] In his work The Jewish Question, completed in 1942 but published posthumously in Paris in 1946, Leon built on earlier analyses of Jewish history as the outcome of the supposed ‘socio-economic function of the Jews’; ‘Above all the Jews constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely, a people-class’.[29] According to Leon, it was capitalism that posed the Jewish Question when, by destroying feudal society, it also ‘destroyed the function of the Jewish people-class’ while being unable to absorb ‘the Jew liberated from [this] social shell’.[30] But this also meant that modern forms of antisemitism were only ‘manifestations of the economic antagonism created by capitalism’.[31] ‘The plight of the Jews has never been so tragic’, wrote Leon, ‘but never has it been so close to ceasing to be that’.[32] Supposedly, ghettos and yellow badges did not prevent ‘the workers from feeling a greater solidarity with those who suffer most from the afflictions all humanity is suffering’. Socialism would open the way for resolving Jewish plight. Traverso observed that Leon concluded the traditional Marxist approach to the Jewish problem, ‘assimilation as a historical trend and an outcome of 'progress'’, ‘at a time when Auschwitz was sounding the death knell for a century of Jewish assimilation’.[33]

It was the horrors of Auschwitz that in the eyes of Adorno ‘makes all talk of progress towards freedom ludicrous’; ‘if freedom and autonomy still had any substance, Auschwitz could not have happened’. Confronted with the direct merger of politics with mass murder in Auschwitz and other camps, such talk becomes ‘the mere assertion of a mind that is incapable of looking horror in the face and that thereby perpetuates it.’[34]  In his contribution to this issue, Traverso considers the work of one thinker who did look the horror in the face, Günther Anders. For Anders, Auschwitz and Hiroshima named the transition to a new historical epoch, one in which humanity itself was ‘exterminable’ (tötbar).[35]

Whereas as the socialist movement historically tended towards a linear vision of progress, there is a need for what Michael Löwy has called ‘a dialectical conception of progress, which takes into account the negative aspect of capitalist modernity’.[36] In his contribution to this special issue, Löwy offers a reading of Kafka as an observer of one such aspect, of a bureaucratic ‘justice’ system ‘crushing the innocent individual under the wheels of the State machine’. In a different view of history Ishay Landa calls to ‘complete the revolution of 1789 and to follow the process of modernity through’ by recognizing the ‘locomotive of world history’ as a force for emancipation.

In a similar impulse to reassess the Marxist classics, Neil Levi subjects Postone’s essay to an immanent critique. Such a critique is all the more relevant because the essay has become a widely cited reference, including among Marxists who otherwise have little in common with Postone’s approach. Part of the explanation is the paucity of Marxist analyses of Auschwitz. While National-Socialism and fascism have been the subject of intense scrutiny, much less attention has been paid to the analysis of Auschwitz and of the processes leading up to it.

Postone’s essay itself dates from 1979. An English translation was published the following year, in New German Critique. The essay starts by examining the West-German response to the televised filmHolocaust and goes on to discuss the lack of attention to Auschwitz specifically in the West-German New Left. Only the second half of the text develops an analysis of antisemitism. According to Postone, this film was the first time that the majority of the generation politicised after 1968 had ‘concretely and viscerally been confronted with the fate of the Jews’; ‘they had known, of course, but apparently only abstractly.’

For Postone, ‘The post-war insistence on not having known should probably be interpreted as a continued insistence on not wanting to know. ‘‘We didn't know’’ should be understood as ‘‘we still don't want to know.’’ Admission of knowledge – even if acquired post factum – would have necessarily demanded an internal distancing from past identification and would have led to political and social consequences. Such consequences would have required among other things that former Nazi-officials could not have continued exercising their functions in the Federal Republic. But rather than an anti-fascist reckoning, ‘the demand was for ‘‘‘normalcy’’ at all costs, one to be achieved without dealing with the past. The strong identification with that past was not overcome, but simply buried beneath a surfeit of Volkswagens’.[37]

At this point, Postone’s essay can be read as an implicit critique of the Holocaust’s use as a universal key to understanding antisemitism as such. The failure to reckon with the specific nature of Nazi-antisemitism ‘was psychic self-denial and repression.’ The German left’s lack of knowledge about concrete Nazi-policies led, on Postone’s assessment, to an incomplete view of National-Socialism. Against this, Postone insisted on the ‘specificity of Nazism and the extermination of European Jewry’ and argued against interpretations of the Third Reich in ‘historically non-specific terms’. According to Postone, German feelings of guilt and shame led to a concern with the Nazi-past but one that avoided ‘the specificity of the past’.[38] In other words, Postone’s essay was not intended to be an analysis of antisemitism in general, nor of murderous, ‘redemptive’ antisemitism, but of specifically National-Socialist antisemitism.[39]

The main argument that Postone developed is that Nazi-antisemitism identified the figure of the Jews with ‘abstract’, financial capital as juxtaposed to concrete ‘industrial’ capital. Where the former was parasitic and rootless, the latter was productive. In Nazi-antisemitism, Jews became identified not only with money and the circulation of capital, as they had been already in pre-existing forms of antisemitism, but ‘were identified with capital itself’.[40] National-Socialism was, in terms of its self-understanding, a movement of revolt.[41] Nazi-leaders described their movement as driven by a ‘great anticapitalist yearning’, even a part of a ‘racial world revolution’.[42] Clearly, this was a very specific form of antisemitism, and an analysis of this form of antisemitism cannot simply be generalised.

Regardless of the value of the analysis developed in the second part of ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’, attention to the often neglected first part of the text should warn against attempts to use it as a general explanatory model.[43]

What then to make of the widespread use of the text and its analytical categories in ways that ignore Postone’s insistence on the specificity of German National-Socialist antisemitism? ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’ itself offers a critique avant la lettre of this use of the text; by ignoring the specificity of National-Socialist antisemitism, the antisemitism that had led to Auschwitz, other issues, such as the confrontation with authoritarian policies in the Federal Republic of Germany could be understood ‘as a direct struggle against fascism, an attempt to make up today for the lack of German resistance then.’[44] A similar mechanism can be seen in the contemporary so-called Antideutsch (Anti-German) milieu analysed by Fischer. Although Postone’s essay gained cult status in such circles, Anti-German currents are a stark example of the mechanism of German deflection described by him: attention to the specificity of German National-Socialism is replaced by opposition to a supposedly universal antisemitism. Instead of a reckoning with the German past and its consequences, the current focusses on attacks on the other, foremost on Palestinians and solidarity activists, and, as Fischer shows, a turn towards conformity with German raison d’etat. As Postone wrote in 1979, ‘What happened to the Jews has been instrumentalized and transformed into an ideology of legitimation for the present system’.[45]

Antisemitism, Zionism, and Palestinian Liberation

One important aspect of the contemporary debate – both because of the break it represents with most classical Marxist interpretations of the early twentieth century, and because of its centrality in contemporary public discourse – is the relationship between antisemitism, Zionism, and Palestinian liberation.[46] As already pointed out above, the current dominant narrative propelled by pro-Israeli organisations and politicians, and given material form through IHRA policies and anti-BDS legislation, is that the roots of modern antisemitism are located in the activities of the Palestine Solidarity movements and, by extension, Muslim migrant populations in Europe.[47] In this view, antisemitism is neither a European problem nor one that finds its roots in the classical arsenal of fascism on the one hand, and European nation-state formation on the other.

The so called ‘New Antisemitism’ was theorised around the turn of the millennium by a series of French neo-con intellectuals, some of whom had old roots in the 1968 left, who saw the rise of a new left and militant anti-racist politics in the banlieues as existential threats to the republic – for its stability at home, and its interests abroad.[48] At the very moment when fascism, in the form of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, grew to becoming a key contender in national politics for the first time in post-war history (the same Le Pen who described the Holocaust as ‘a detail of history’), the French right launched a sustained attack on the left and Muslim populations as the key danger faced by Jewish populations in the republic, to great and long lasting effect. In recent years, for example, the Macron government – following in the footsteps of its predecessors – anxious to demonstrate its ability to challenge the now renamed National Rally on its right, took aim at so-called ‘islamo-leftism’ while banning pro-Palestinian demonstrations and BDS initiatives.[49] The echoes with the similarly racist and repressive scarecrow of Judeo-Bolshevism of a century ago are obvious.

In their early and still seminal critique of this phenomenon, Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan identified the centrality of Palestine to this process.[50] The narrative functions in three steps: i) equate critiques of Israel and of French support for it with antisemitism; ii) claim that Jews are therefore under threat from growing support for Palestinian liberation, which in turn pre-supposes a perfect overlap between Jews and Zionism; iii) identify the left and Muslim populations’ support for Palestinian liberation with antisemitism – even (especially?) when those accused make a clear distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. All protestation critiquing Israel’s ongoing colonial rule over the Palestinian people is therefore not only pre-emptively silenced but also further proof of guilt: it is but a trick of the ‘New Antisemitism’ in order to hide its true colours. If, as Bensaïd wrote in 2005, antisemitism can become ‘the anti-imperialism of fools as it once was the socialism of fools’, the policies of the Israeli state and its allies will have done much to bring this about.[51]

Under this narrative, Palestinians and their treatment at the hands of the Israeli state – supported, armed, and financed by western states – are disappeared from view. Their demands are ignored or, worse, immediately turned into suspicious attempts to ‘single out’ the only ‘Jewish state’ in the world. Jewish populations, on the other hand, are made collectively synonymous with Israel and thereby positioned, as a sort of ideological shield, between the states in question and those protesting their imperialist and colonial practices.[52] This attitude points to a much longer-term historical shift in the imposed identification on Jewish populations in the West, under the dual influence of the Holocaust and the creation of the Israeli state.

Indeed, a number of the contributors to this special issue point to these much longer histories, both of attempts to delegitimise anti-Zionism by conflating it with antisemitism, as well as different forms of resistance against it. Salim Nadi, for example, introduces readers to the figure and work of Abraham Serfaty, a Marxist, Jewish, Moroccan revolutionary who thought through the connections between colonialism, antisemitism, and Zionism as a basis for revolutionary politics in the Maghreb. Readers are also presented with a text, previously unavailable in English, where Serfaty illustrates some of these connections and their practical consequences by focussing on the fate of Moroccan Jews, oppressed at home, exploited in Israel, and yet mobilised as cannon fodder by the reactionary regimes in both countries. Only internationalism, solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation, and the reclaiming of a pre-Zionist North African Jewishness can, for Serfaty, offer a road out of the impasse. If the text today reads more like a testimony of a road not taken, it points to a set of strategic commitments which remain nonetheless vital today.

Benjamin Balthaser and Sune Haugbølle also return to the 1960s and 1970s, in the United States and Denmark respectively, to present us with historical examples of how the left engaged in solidarity with the Palestinian people, addressed accusations of antisemitism, and fought to link their struggles together. Similar to their incarcerated Moroccan comrade, these movements developed ways to think about their own liberation in connection with that of the Palestinians – different circumstances linked through the structures of capitalism, racism, and imperialism.

The period that these texts engage with is crucial if we are to understand the changes to the nature of Western antisemitism, which have led to our current moment. Indeed, from the 1960s onwards, Western States shifted their attitude towards Jewish populations.[53] Under pressure from growing anti-colonial movements in the Global South and anti-racist movements at home, Western states re-imagined their history as one centred around the lessons of the Holocaust. Remembering the Nazi genocide –- without acknowledging the collective responsibility of European and North American ruling classes in financing the Nazi party and whipping up antisemitism in their own states – became a way to claim a newly imagined anti-racist identity for the very states that had either organised the extermination of the Jews in Europe, or been the fertile ground for half a century of antisemitic reaction in the run up to it. This white-washed Holocaust memory became, as Traverso has argued, a civil religion. As he warned: ‘Institutionalised and neutralised, the memory of the Holocaust thus risks becoming the moral sanction for a Western order that perpetuates oppression and injustice’.[54]

Indeed, alongside this process taking place from the early 1960s onwards in Western Europe and North America, Western support for Israel could then be constructed not as the continuation of the very imperialist and colonial policies that were being challenged across the globe, but as a form of anti-racist solidarity and a commitment to the most narrow and reactionary interpretation of the slogan: ‘Never Again’.[55] From pariahs and proto-typical enemies of the state, Jewish populations were re-invented by their oppressors of yesteryear as the defenders of Western civilisation par excellence. This defence was mobilised against racialised communities at home, and anti-colonial/imperialist struggles abroad. Far from protecting them or freeing them from oppression, Western states repositioned Jewish populations at the centre of their racist regimes, albeit in an inverted way. The consequences of this approach are all around us. Western states justify their support for Israel as support for an abstracted Jewish community, rather than self-interested imperialist policy. Jews who dissent are cast out. And the many hundreds of thousands who support Palestinian liberation and challenge their own states’ complicity are no longer anti-racist or anti-colonial activists but antisemites.

Antisemitism, Structural Racism, and Oppression

In this context, the analyses which identify, as Aimé Césaire and Hannah Arendt once did, the continuity between Nazi exterminationist policies and those carried out by the different European empires across the globe, help us to undermine these ideological constructions and to rebuild collective forms of solidarity and action.[56] Already in 1942, Karl Korsch noted that: ‘[t]he novelty of totalitarian politics in this respect is simply that the Nazis have extended to “civilized” European peoples the methods hitherto reserved for the “natives” or “savages” living outside so-called civilization’.[57] This approach, far from belittling the Holocaust or antisemitism, points to vital possible alliances in fighting all forms of oppression and exit the system that produces them as necessary to its reproduction and survival.

The question of the comparability of the Holocaust remains controversial and fractious today. Accusations abound that placing the Nazi genocide in the context of the long history of colonial processes of racialisation, dispossession, mass murder, and extermination, is synonymous with undermining its gravity – or even akin to revisionism. Germany, where furious debate has raged over the nature of the Herero and Nama genocide and its connection to the Holocaust for the last decade, once again serves as a helpful example in this regard.[58] As Jürgen Zimmerer has convincingly shown, it is not only appropriate but necessary to put the genocide carried out by German soldiers and settlers in Namibia in the early twentieth century in relation to the Holocaust in order to understand the latter fully.[59]

Whether in terms of the development of ideas of racial superiority and purity, the need for the German Volk to secure itsLebensraum, or the actual overlap in personnel in developing colonial and occupation policy in Africa and Eastern Europe, respectively, or settling the two territories, Zimmerer shows that the connections are as fundamental as they are numerous. This is of course to say nothing of the ways in which Nazi officials, not least amongst them Adolf Hitler himself, were wont to make these connections and comparisons explicit in their thought – from the racialisation and genocide of Indigenous populations in North America to British colonial rule in India.[60] Yet Zimmerer and others’ careful analyses of these parallels has been met with opprobrium in German public debate. To link the history of the Holocaust to that of colonial genocides is, in the eyes of the defenders of official history, paramount to undermine its gravity.

Leaving aside for now what this approach might tell us about the value such commentators attribute to the lives of former colonial subjects across the Global South, it is clear that positioning the Holocaust as an exclusive event, located almost out of time, is key to the process described above: making its remembrance – ritualised and de-politicised – central to Western self-image, cleansing it of its racist past. If the Holocaust remains disconnected – and implicit in this disconnection is the idea that it is ‘worse’ in an imagined hierarchy of barbarism – from the long history of 500 years of genocidal violence across the world, then Western states can reconcile the recognition and remembrance of one, with the disavowal of the others. It is, in fact, very much this question of recognition and reparations for its colonial crimes in Southwest Africa which lies at the centre of the contemporary German controversy.

It is worth noting, however, that another form of comparison has, in certain quarters, become all pervasive. Both Fisher and Miriyam Aouragh discuss in the pages of this special issue the ways in which Palestinians are repeatedly recast as a modern embodiment of the Nazi party. This phenomenon is long lasting and well documented in the history of Israeli depiction of the Palestinian national movement and its organisations.[61] Not only are early Palestinian notables accused of being the ideological source of the exterminationist policies of the Nazis, despite ample historical evidence to the contrary, but Arab and Palestinian national movements are regularly recast as the contemporary expression of this supposed desire, not to free Palestine, but to wipe the Jewish people of the map.[62]

 As both authors show, the tendency to obscure European histories of colonial and racial violence by projecting responsibility for them on their contemporary victims is not limited to Israel. Palestinians, the global solidarity movement, as well as other racialized groups – primary amongst which are Muslim populations in Europe – have been cast in much the same light by the propagators of the ‘New Antisemitism’ discourse. With the Western elites whitewashed and Israel made synonymous with Jewish people everywhere, any critique of the Israeli state can only be read through the prism of the unaddressed demons of the Western collective past. It is not out of Europe that modern antisemitism emerged, in this narrative, nor is it in the re-emergence of its far-right parties and movements that the danger lies. Instead, it is immigrants, Muslims, Palestinians, and their supporters who are ‘importing’ the scourge of antisemitism into the enlightened West. We return once more to the image with which we started: while Jean-Marie Le Pen announced freely on national television that the Holocaust had been ‘a detail’ in history, the French neo-cons argued it was from the banlieues that the danger came.

Comparison and connections are not only important to understand and identify the threat, but also in developing ways to fight it. If antisemitism is one specific expression of a wider framework of reactionary ideas and structures, then the struggle against it also needs to make these wider connections. Both Peter Drucker and Cihan Özpinar direct our attention to these issues. Drucker shows the striking parallels between the place that antisemitism and homophobia have and continue to play in the organisation of fascist and far-right parties. Both were key in the so-called period of ‘dediabolisation’ in the 1990s and early 2000s, when upholding supposed western values such as the equality of genders, religions, and sexualities in the face of imagined reactionary Muslim invasions became central to these movements’ narratives. It is also striking that as the far-right has grown in strength, this strategy has increasingly fallen to the wayside. Özpinar explores the connections between class and racialisation. While working class Muslims are targeted and isolated from wider society through the ‘New Antisemitism’ discourse, Muslim elites are turned into disciplining agents of ‘their’ community. Both processes, Özpinar argues, work in tandem to disorganise and weaken movements of contestation among Muslim populations in Europe.

It is not possible to understand the nature of antisemitism nor its different expressions without placing it within a broader framework of oppression, repression, and racialisation. Failing to do so also undermines the possibilities to challenge it. Put plainly, in the words of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer: “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”[63]

Where Next?

The need, then, for an adequate analysis of what antisemitism is, how to recognise it and fight it, could not be clearer.

Although many of the conclusions of the classical Marxist canon have proven mistaken – not least its emphasis on assimilation as a quasi-automatic (or desirable) process that would prove to be the solution to the oppression faced by Jewish populations – its approach, which insists on historicising the problem and confronting it within specific and changing circumstances, remains crucial. Similarly, the emphasis on reading (and fighting) antisemitism as one part of a broader network of oppression and exploitation, so central to the reproduction of capitalism, is one which serves as an important corrective to contemporary tendencies to exceptionalise and de-contextualise antisemitism.

The Marxist tradition and the socialist movement itself should not be exempt from investigation. Brendan McGeever’s work on antisemitism in the Russian revolution is a powerful example of this. Simon Pirani’s review discusses the crucial importance of not-only acknowledging the ways in which the Bolshevik revolution was a crucial step forward in the struggle against antisemitic terror in Eastern Europe, but also to recognise the ways in which revolutionary movements are not hermetically sealed off from the hegemonic reactionary ideas of their time. Here too, reading antisemitism and the struggle against it in a situated, historically informed, and interconnected manner opens up important avenues for analysis.

Although the Marxist tradition has valuable insights to offer, which we hope the pages of this special issue demonstrate, we also suggest that there is a need to overcome a certain Eurocentrism within it, which projects European patterns of antisemitism onto the world stage. Too often have the contributions of non-European Marxists been neglected, as both Nadi and Aouragh demonstrate. The same is true in how we approach the European Marxist tradition and its classical texts. Levi demonstrates in his critique of Postone, how crucial bringing in the wider history of empire, racialisation, and violence is if we are to understand antisemitism effectively.

However, if a Marxist approach to antisemitism is to be fruitful, that is to be useful both analytically and practically, it needs to turn its attention to the present. The late nineteenth century gave birth to a form of antisemitism that emerged out of the racialisations of the colonial world on the one hand and the emancipation of the Jewish populations in Europe on the other. Jewish difference was being made increasingly fundamental, biological even, at the very time when ‘the Jew’ from the mediaeval ghetto was vanishing from view. No longer kept in place by religious persecution but granted civil rights, ‘he’ could be everywhere. No longer defined religiously but racially, ‘he’ could never assimilate. These processes are not those faced by Jewish populations in the present. If Marxism is to be relevant, it must recognise and engage with the new ways in which ‘the Jew’ is being constructed by the material and ideological structures we face in the present.

This introduction and the special issue as a whole give some possible avenues for reflection: connection with Islamophobia, the place of Zionism and Holocaust memory in the projection of Western power, the rise of a new far right, and the shifting class position of both Jewish and other racialised communities, imperialism, and the ongoing crises of capitalism. We hope this special issue will not only reinforce the need to follow these paths of analysis and critique further, but also be a modest contribution to the renewed Marxist engagement with the critique of antisemitism - and the struggle against it.

[1] See for example, Traverso, Enzo 2016, The End of Jewish Modernity, London: Pluto Press, for a longer discussion of this phenomenon.

[2] Peter Drucker’s excellent essay in this special issue returns to this question and discusses a comparable phenomenon in regards to the far right’s relationship with homophobia.

[3] See for example, Rebecca Ruth Gould (2020), ‘The IHRA Definition of Antisemitism: Defining Antisemitism by Erasing Palestinians’, The Political Quarterly, 91(4), pp.825-831, for an overview and critique. For a full timeline see Palestine Legal (undated),’ Distorted Definition: Redefining Antisemitism to Silence Advocacy for Palestinian Rights’, Palestine Legal,

[4] Joshua Leifer’s account, ‘The Challenge of Defending Memory in Germany’,Jewish Currents (7th July 2022) is instructive,

[5] Baconi is the author of (2018), Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, Stanford: Stanford University Press, and the president of the board of the Palestinian policy Network Al Shabaka,

[6] For an excellent discussion and analysis of the relationship between the Holocaust and the Nakba, see Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, eds., (2019), The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, New York: Columbia University Press.

[7] For a critical overview of this process see Jamie Stern-Weiner, ed. (2019), Antisemitism and the Labour Party, London: Verso; Alex Nunns (Forthcoming),Sabotage: The Inside Hit Job That Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn, Or Books; Ed McNally (2020), ‘Jeremy Corbyn Was Successful When He Stuck to His Socialist Principles’,Jacobin, 7th October,

[8] Zoe Tidman (2019), ‘Theresa May unveils statue of 'virulently antisemitic' first woman MP’, The Independent, 29th November,

[9] See for example, David Renton (2021), Labour's Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong, Routledge; Daniel Randall (2021), Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists, No Pasaran Media.

[10] Different versions have appeared of ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’. The first English-language publication was ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: notes on the German reaction to ‘‘Holocaust’’’, New German Critique 19 (1980), pp. 97-115. A reworked and shortened version appeared in A. Rabinach and J. Zipes, eds., (1986),Germans and Jews since the Holocaust, Holmes & Meier. Moishe Postone (2005),Deutschland, die Linke und der Holocaust. Politische Intervention, Barbara Fried et al., eds., Ça ira-verlag contains a version incorporating different English and German language versions of the essay.

[11] Quoted by Daniel Bensaïd in: Karl Marx (2006), Sur la Question Juive. Présentation et commentaires de Daniel Bensaïd, La Fabrique, p. 25.


[12] Enzo Traverso (2000), Nach Auschwitz, ISP-Verlag, p. 38.

[13] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 106.

[14] Philippe Burrin (2005), Nazi Anti-Semitism. From Prejudice to the Holocaust, The New Press, p. 23.

[15] Detlev Claussen (2005), Grenzen der Aufklärung. Die gesellschaftliche Genese des modernen Antisemitismus, Fischer, p. 99.

[16] Michael Heinrich (2019), Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society: The Life of Marx and the Development of His Work (Volume I: 1818-1841), Monthly Review Press, pp. 286-288.

[17] Ilse Yago-Jung, introduction to Iring Fetscher, ed., (1974) Marxisten gegen Antisemitismus, Hoffman und Campe, p. 15.

[18] Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, online:

[19] Marx (2006), Sur la Question Juive, p. 13.

[20] Ibid, p. 29.

[21] August Bebel, ‘Sozialdemokratie und Antisemitismus. Rede beim Kölner Parteitag 1893’, online at

[22]  Karl Kautsky, Rasse und Judentum, in: Iring Fetscher, ed., (1974)Marxisten gegen Antisemitismus, Hoffman und Campe, p. 90.

[23]  Enzo Traverso (1994),The Marxists and the Jewish Question. The History of a Debate, Huminaties Press, pp. 76-82.

[24]  Kautsky, Rasse und Judentum, p. 92.

[25]  Ibid., p. 115.

[26]  Ibid., p. 119.

[27]  Otto Heller (1931) Der Untergang des Judentums, Wien/Berlin: Verlag für Literaur und Politik, p. 150. 

[28]  Traverso,Les Marxistes et la Question Juive, p. 225.

[29]  Ibid., p. 226.

[30]  Abram Leon (1970),The Jewish Question. A Marxist interpretation, Pathfinder Pres, p. 258.

[31]  Ibid., 266.

[32]  Ibid., p. 262.

[33] Traverso, Les Marxistes et la Question Juive, p. 243.

[34]  Theodor W. Adorno (2008) History and Freedom. Lectures 1964–1965, Cambridge: Polity, p. 7.

[35]  Enzo Traverso (2020),Critique of Modern Barbarism. Essays on fascism, anti-Semitism and the use of History, Amsterdam: IIRE, p. 48.

[36]  Michael Löwy (2000), Marx’s dialectic of progress: open or closed?,Socialism and Democracy, 14(1), pp. 35-44.

[37] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 99-101.

[38] Ibid, p. 102.

[39] It should be noted that at a later point Postone wrote that ‘modern anti-Semitism’ as such could be understood as ‘as a fetishized one-sided form of anticapitalism’ that ‘biologistically identifies’ Jews with ‘abstract capital’. See Moise Postone (2003),Time, Labor, and Social Domination. A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[40] Moishe Postone, ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’, in: Moishe Postone and Eric Santer eds., (2003),Catastrophe and Meaning. The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 93.

[41] Postone, ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’, p. 84.

[42] Alfred Rosenberg (2015),Die Tagebücher von 1934 bis 1944, Jürgen Matthäus and Frank Bajohr ed., Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, p. 629.

[43] For one recent critique of Postone’s thesis, also see Michael Sommer (2022),Anti-Postone: or, Why Moishe Postone's Antisemitism Theory is Wrong, but Effective, Cosmonaut Press.

[44] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 102.

[45] Ibid., p. 98.

[46] For a sustained and insightful reflection on the relationships between both over the long durée, see Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh, eds. (2020), The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond, New York: Columbia University Press.

[47] For an excellent study of these processes see Hil Aked (2023), Friends of Israel: The Backlash Against Palestine Solidarity, London: Verso.

[48] See for example Emmanuel Brenner, ed. (2002),Les Territoires Perdus de la République, Paris: Mille et une nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2002),La Nouvelle Judéophobie, Paris: Mille et une Nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2004),Prêcheurs de Haine: Traversée de la Judéophobie Planétaire, Paris: Mille et une Nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2021),Liaisons Dangereuses: Islamo-Nazisme, Islamo-Gauchisme, Paris: Hermann; Alain Finkielkraut (2003),Au Nom de l’Autre: Réflexions sur l’Antisémitisme qui Vient, Paris: Gallimard; Nicolas Weill (2004),La République et les Antisémites, Paris: Grasset.

[49] Selim Nadi (2021),’Emmanuel Macron’s Government Has Banned Palestine Solidarity Demonstrations’,Jacobin, 14th May,

[50] Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan, ‘“Anti-Semitism Everywhere” in France Today’, in Alain Badiou, Eric Hazan, and Ivan Segré (2013), Reflexions on Anti-Semitism, London: Verso.

[51] Daniel Bensaïd (2005), Fragments mécréants. Mythes identitaires et République imaginaire. Paris: Lignes.

[52] In responses to the imposition of the IHRA working definition in British universities, more than 120 Palestinian and Arab scholars, artists, and intellectuals, published a letter highlighting how their oppression - both historic and present - was being silenced and denied, while the struggle against antisemitism was being undermined by this weaponisation. See ‘Palestinian rights and the IHRA definition of antisemitism’,The Guardian, 29th November 2020,

[53] For a more detailed account of this process see Sai Englert (2018), ‘The State, Zionism and the Nazi Genocide: Jewish Identity-Formation in the West between Assimilation and Rejection’, Historical Materialism, 26(2), pp.149–177.

[54] Enzo Traverso (2016),The End of Jewish Modernity, London: Pluto Press, pp.126-7.

[55]  For a detailed account of the reimagination of the German State as an anti-racist actor and a friend to the Jewish people - via its support for Zionism - see the excellent Daniel Marwecki (2020),Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[56]  Hannah Arendt (1973), The Origins of Imperialism, London: André Deutsch, pp. 123, 138, 143, 218, passim. Aimé Césaire (2000),Discourse on Colonialism, New York: Monthly Review, pp . 35-40.

[57] Karl Korsh (1942), ‘Notes on History: The Ambiguities of Totalitarian Ideologies’, New Essays: A Quarterly Devoted to the Study of Modern Society, Vol. 6 (1942), no 2 (Fall), p. 1-9.

[58] Thomas Rogers (2023) provides a helpful English language overview of these recent debates in his ‘The Long Shadow of German Colonialism’,The New York Review, 9th March,

[59] Jürgen Zimmerer (2006), ‘The Birth of theOstland out of the Spirit of Colonialism: a Postcolonial Perspective on the Nazi Policy of Conquest and Extermination’,Patterns of Prejudice, 39(2), pp.197-219. See also Patrick Wolfe (2016),Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, London: Verso, for an excellent discussion of modern antisemitism within the general emergence of ‘race science’ and racism.

[60] Jürgen Zimmerer (2008), ‘Colonialism and the Holocaust – Towards an Archeology of Genocide’,Development Dialogue, 50,  p.95. Mahmood Mamdani (2020), Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 105-106

[61] Joseph Massad (2006),The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, New York: Routledge. See especially pp.132-134. Tom Segev (1993),The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, New York: Owl Books.

[62] For a careful and detailed debunking of these arguments see Gilbert Achcar (2009),The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, New York: Metropolitan Books.

[63] Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck (eds.) (2010), The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is,University Press of Mississippi, p.134.