British Jews view the killings of 7 October as another tragic episode in Jewish history and recall past massacres in eastern Europe or the Farhud in Iraq in 1941. In contrast, few of the marchers on these pro-Palestine marches would have understood it as a pogrom of ethnic cleansing.
Many Ashkenazi Jews in the UK trace their own history back to the pogroms of 1881/2 in Tsarist Russia which led to a vast migration to London, New York and Jerusalem. Then as now, the far Left minimised the slaughter of Jews. In 1881, major groups such as the Narodnaya Volya refused to condemn the pogromists because it did not wish to alienate them from the cause of overthrowing the Tsar. It believed that the violence of ‘revolutionary antisemitism’ could be redirected towards the authorities.
Many on the far left in 1881 were actually aghast at the actions of the mass murderers who saw the Jews as Christ-killers and exploiters of the poor and vulnerable. Their silence resided in the logic of political expediency and that higher principles demanded silence.
The killing of Jews was seen as a sad necessity in the service of the greater good of the revolution. Was a pogrom in 2023 a sad necessity to bring about a free Palestine?
Then as now, some Jews made their bed in the home of the revolution. For some, their Jewishness was peripheral except when it could serve the cause. Only then would they agree to be wheeled out to proclaim their Jewishness.
Yet there were others who asked why should Jews be sacrificial lambs? Why should the future be built with the blood of Jews?
There were red lines that should not be crossed. In 1881, Pavel Akselrod, one of the founding fathers of the revolutionary Left, was unable to secure the Narodnaya Volya’s agreement to publish a condemnation of the pogromists. This marked a profound ideological watershed for Akselrod who subsequently followed the path of democratic socialism and political freedom.
This mindset of silence when it came to pogroms during the 1880s made many Jews conclude that Jews they could not depend on the far Left for their salvation. It was auto-emancipation that mattered — and not emancipation by others.
Many became Zionists more than a decade before Herzl, no longer part of the Russian Left but now part of the Jewish Left.
In the 1990s, the far left in Britain cultivated Islamists as a means of attracting the Muslim community to their banner because they viewed them as ‘the new proletariat’. During the protests over the invasion of Iraq in 2003, devout Trotskyists happily worked with the Muslim Association of Britain, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas — also a derivative of the Muslim Brotherhood — was depicted as a textbook liberation movement in the belief that it would eventually turn to the left.
Jon Lansman and David Baddiel have refused to conform to this zeitgeist. Jews, situated on the far left, have similarly been shocked by last month’s pogrom. The leading Jewish American academic, Judith Butler, had described Hamas as ‘progressive, part of the global left’ in 2006 but today she is clearly appalled by the events of 7 October.
Jewish commentators on the Novara Media outlet jumped back from depicting Hamas as ‘the resistance’ once it was clear that a massacre was taking place.
In 1881, many Jews asked the revolutionary left in Russia why it compromised with racists? In 2023, many Jews ask why the far left in Britain allies itself with reactionary Islamists?
The far left has long refused to recognise that Arab nationalism and Jewish nationalism arose at the same point in history with claims to the same territory — and that the rational solution is partition. This is a compromise which Hamas, entrapped by its own interpretation of religion, is unable to make — and one that the far left refuses to see.
The chant, heard on last week’s demonstration: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” is a plea for a greater Palestine not a two-state solution. Many Jews see this as a judenrein territory.
The far ‘left is blind to all this. They are the political ostriches of our time.
Colin Shindler is a professor of Israel studies
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