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It is an anti-fascist duty to protest against the Israeli ambassador
Don’t – goes the common imperative – compare anything to the Holocaust. If you understood the scale of its organised annihilation, its industrial death factories, its carnivals of degradation, you would see why it makes us nauseous when you treat it as a little dagger of yours for flippant point-scoring, when you accuse others of behaving like Nazis for committing some smaller infraction. We have heard these warnings often before. Why do people keep doing it?
Three years ago, amid a bitter anti-Semitism saga, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge was investigated by her Party after several witnesses alleged that she had verbally abused Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament. Now she knew, Hodge suggested, how it felt to be a Jew in 1930s Germany. She compared her feelings on receiving that letter of complaint to her father’s experience being driven out of Germany by Hitler. The speed and the apparent casualness with which she reached for the analogy were disorienting, even a little chilling – in fact, it fits a pattern. This week, a leading editorial in the Jewish Chronicle was titled: ‘On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a Jew hunting mob on the streets of London.’ The newspaper referred to students protesting against the Israeli Ambassador, who was speaking on their campus, as ‘violent racists on the hunt for a Jew to attack.’ The short piece was not signed by any one author; it spoke with the authority of the paper.
Here is the tension. For much of contemporary politics in Israel and the wider West, two axioms hold. The Holocaust was utterly historically unique, and it is everywhere. The same people who rush (as in the IHRA’s examples) to denounce analogies between Israel and the Nazis issue a flurry of analogies between Israel’s opponents and the Nazis. That makes perfect sense really. Their politics is framed by trauma, and the nightmare of gas chambers reopening, but the convenience of this nightmare for the West is the theory of Nazism implied by it. It is a theory that explains the ubiquitous marriage of these two, apparently opposed claims: that the Holocaust was an event outside history, and that history now is saturated in it.
If the camps loom singly as arbitrary evil without precedent, then our shock and our horror can be drained of radical political content. Our rage against it all need not imply anything about the wider European civilisation in which these millions were marked out for destruction. It is a rage contained, a rage without target now, except the last few ageing SS guards. This was unique and inexplicable, we are told over and over, lest we draw connections or start associating atrocities in dangerous family trees. The Nazis who honed their skills in an imperial genocide in Namibia are invisible, just as the Jim Crow influence on Hitler’s racial thinking was for so long neglected; these horrors came from nowhere, they had to come from nowhere. That was the only palatable way for the white world order to face the Holocaust in 1945: its only other options were a cruder denial or a terrifying accounting with itself. The global history of anti-fascism as an anti-colonial battle after 1945 is thus erased – the decorated fascists who rounded up Jews and then later murdered Algerians; the crisp fury of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon and so many more who saw afterlives of the Third Reich alive around them. Expunging this crime means only chasing its functionaries, and nobody else.
The claim to diabolical singularity then identifies antecedents and descendants, by shunning these broader associations to treat Auschwitz as the denouement of centuries of anti-Semitism alone. That is permissible, though, only by virtue of another mechanism of denial. Europe has displaced and transferred anti-Semitism now onto the savages: Arabs and Muslims and the radical left, anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists. These are the ‘New Antisemites.’ In one swoop, the 1930s politics of bourgeois Europe – whose defensive angst and supremacism slid into fascism – becomes a ground zero for no questions about that civilisation at all, but for fear of its Others instead. It’s perfect. Europe’s most visible bloody sin is first isolated, then treated as alien to it. Netanyahu suggests a Palestinian gave Hitler his bad ideas.
And so we may not speak of fascism in the Jewish state, though in 1948 Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein and others did just that. One should be careful here. But the current Israeli Ambassador to Britain, Tzipi Hotovely, flaunts a book of Palestinian history alongside the Bible in the Knesset, as she mocks Palestinians and says they have no history or culture. She invites into that same parliament representatives of Lehava, the Kahanist mob who intimidate race-mixers – those whose marriages or beach trips or schools threaten the purity and the separation of Jewish blood and Jewish soil. How to speak of Lehava except as fascists? How to face their cheerleader in state office, and retain our loyalty to the lessons of the 1930s? Furious protest feels like the least we can do.
This week, students at the London School of Economics did just that. They gathered to register their protest against a world where some people matter, and others are marked for a smaller bundle of rights. Hotovely was given flowers on their campus, and delivered a talk on ‘peace in the Middle East.’ Outside, they banged drums and flew flags and chanted for freedom. Some of them were Palestinians. The Ambassador inside had, as Settlements Minister under Netanyahu, openly relished her theft of land and resources from Palestinians. She yearned aloud for more of it. In this respect, 2021 could be 1921; here was a far-right politician with visions of settling new plains grabbed from inferior races. She left campus in a hurry, surrounded by that angry crowd. A raft of senior British politicians – including both the Home Secretary and Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary – now defend her from the students. If the students were acting as anti-fascists, what does that make these politicians?
The incongruity of our post-Holocaust world is that racism is officially bad (that is, powerful people feel the need to deny being racist) even as the colonial world order that once birthed a proud, open racism (Woodrow Wilson screening KKK propaganda in the White House, and so on) has not been simply vanquished. Politicians now kneel to say Black Lives Matter, then ensure thousands drown in the Mediterranean as they scramble for the gated safer corners of the world. Once, before 1945, things were clearer. A hierarchically organised white world order was often defended as a white world order. The supremacist violence that underpinned it was justified plainly by insisting that its Others were degenerate. Today, a racist world must be defended in anti-racist language. Israel furnishes perhaps the most disorienting example of all: Western politicians proclaim their anti-racism and sometimes even apologise for the colonial past, then defend colonising settlers engaged in an active process of ethnic cleansing right now, and then cast anti-colonial protestors as the real racists.
The colonised and their sympathisers are still insulted in the coded terms of racism – they are, the Jewish Chronicle tells us, a ‘mob’. But today’s postcolonial ruling classes also articulate their racism as anti-racism. The savage and barbarian colonised are presented now as salivating racists; that is one aspect of their uncivilised nature. Imperial power must shelter and protect its Jews from the vicious brown mob. The expelled and the disinherited are the real threat, the violence originates with them. Keir Starmer accuses people who protest when their homes are stolen from them of ‘intimidation,’ with the former Settlements Minister as their victim. This is disgusting, but it is also simply how a settler-colonial planet works. Some people get homes, others get checkpoints and refugee camps and if they complain they’re a mob. Everyone around the world who sympathises with them is suspect, and not by accident; the Palestinian struggle is a lightning rod for a universal dividing line that runs through every continent and country, between violent domination and resistance to it in the name of dignity for the dispossessed. The hatred of Palestinians and the confidence that they mustn’t be allowed to return home is not meaningfully different from the old colonial certainty that the Cherokee belong on reservations and the Zimbabweans are good for labour but not for thinking and the Indians cannot yet govern themselves.
One of the macabre elements of this setup is the way the oppressed can be taken for fools, since they don’t really matter anyway. Western politicians pour out platitudes about a ‘two-state solution’ constantly. It’s their alibi, the imagined future they use if pushed on their support for an apartheid present. They know they can’t defend the nakedly racist present – the water redirected from Palestinian olive groves to settlers’ swimming pools – so as they shovel money to that racist state they smile that everything will be better one day. The chimerical zone of equality implied in the two-state framework requires the generosity of the coloniser, and Tzipi Hotovely has – like her new Prime Minister – repeatedly poured scorn on the idea. She even attacked the Board of Deputies of British Jews for adding a line about it into their support for Israel. We now have an Israeli state loudly and frequently rejecting the very promise that their supporters abroad use to defend them, and nobody cares. It’s only Palestinians being shafted here, and they’re not really full people at all. In Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917, they had only ‘civil and religious rights,’ where Jews got ‘political status’ too. It has been like this for over a century now.
Consistent anti-fascism is not the project of power in our world, since fascism is only the burning edge of the hierarchies to which the political mainstream is loyal. This is not to issue a glib analogy; Tzipi Hotovely is not Hitler, and to suggest otherwise is indeed offensive. But fascism as a global problem is much broader than its vilest eliminationist wing. When Priti Patel and Keir Starmer run to the defence of a politician who frets about the mixing of the races, they say that they do it to protect Jews. In truth, their political ancestors were the Labour and Tory leading lights who stood by as Guernica burned, who worried about a Communist menace while fascism ripped through Europe. Their loyalty, then as now, was to bourgeois society, whose every glistening bauble has a dark underbelly. Primo Levi said, ‘everybody is somebody’s Jew.’ When Palestine is liberated, it will mark a defeat for all these moderate defenders of violent expropriation. They may rush to rewrite history, as they did in South Africa and after the Holocaust, to suggest they loathed this exceptional fascism from day one, and so we should loathe it with them and draw no wider conclusions about our world. But we will know otherwise, we who were inspired this past May when the colonised and battered Palestinian people raised their flags over Lydd. We will watch as the architecture of a paranoid fortress, a Spartan state, is torn down, and we will remember the students who protested this week and were condemned for it. Some may even be known, then, as a few veterans of the Spanish war against fascism became known, after the British and American ruling classes finally decided to fight: as ‘premature anti-fascists.’
Barnaby Raine studies social and political thought at Columbia University, where he is writing his PhD on the decline of visions of ending capitalism. He is an editor at Salvage and the co-host, with Annie Olaloku-Teriba, of Salvage Live, a partnership between Salvage and Haymarket Books.