Fire in the House : The French Left, Anti-Zionism and the Critique of Israel

Last month, a group of almost three dozen members of the lower house of the French Parliament, the National Assembly, introduced a resolution labeling Israel an “apartheid state”. The deputies, hailing from the far-left France Insoumise (LFI) and Communist parties, set off a fiery debate in the chamber, as members of Emmanuel Macron’s government, including Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti, accused LFI of promoting antisemitism. La France Insoumise, which now leads an electoral coalition of the various left-wing factions, the Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (NUPES), received help from the old French Socialist Party, which bristled at accusations of antisemitism made against other left wing parties. Bruno Karsenti, a member of K.’s editorial staff and a senior scholar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, evaluates this latest controversy over antisemitism in France.


The ‘Palais bourbon’ [The French National Assembly (i.e. Lower House)], Wikipedia Commons

Summers come and go, and with the season come fires of varying scale and devastation.  At the National Assembly, the fire was fairly contained, but it still produced its share of panic and emotion. The cause of the inferno was a new Jewish controversy.  The various actors traded salvos about who was to blame, and in the aftermath, there was a large-scale evacuation.

One poses always the same question after a fire: who started it? In this case, the chronology leaves no doubt. The start of the fire came from the NUPES, the alliance of left-wing parties. This is true no matter one’s opinion on who fanned the flames, and in particular the reactions of the government. The general secretary of the Socialist Party reversed the order of facts when he accused the government of “instrumentalizing” antisemitism and in so doing, “demonizing” the left while rehabilitating the far-right. This is also, more consequentially, a form of diversion that prevents the left from drawing a much-needed lesson from this episode.

The fire was set by the LFI and Communist deputies whose surefire instincts indicated that the most pressing business of the day was to assail Israel as an apartheid state implicated in atrocities next to which the misdeeds of China and Russia should appear as child’s play.  Such an act was indispensable for the LFI to start out the new parliamentary session in decent form, which is to say, present itself as a faction resplendent in its radicalism. This was the point of the draft resolution of 22 July.

The row then settled into the old script, as the customary warnings against conflating antisemitism and criticism of Israel were pronounced. (Not that most understand what this means.) There might be excesses, so they said, but worse than excess would be the absence of critique.

The case of Jeremy Corbyn does capture this risk of excess. That is why it is embarrassing for a part of the left. But only for a part, and only to a certain extent. Because he is useful in a certain sense, in order to prevent oneself from being lulled to sleep, to remind one of the need for criticism, and to connect this to the tool of anti-Zionism. The reference allows the music of anti-Zionism to more clearly audible for the intended audience, to discern what is being communicated.

For some members of LFI and the Communist Party, Corbyn is not a fool. In any case, he is not one of those fools that August Bebel referred to when he described antisemitism on the left as “the socialism of fools” at the beginning of the 20th century. Endowed with the kind of cunning that makes populist leaders so successful, in England as in France, he is what one might call a “smart guy,” a gear ideally suited to a critical strategy that some believe is vital for the future of the left in Europe. His strategy, for many members of LFI and Communist Party, is at least somewhat admirable. This approach has the virtue of drawing the largest possible audience in communicating across the dual registers of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. How else to make those who indeed are treated as fools dream? Public attention must be riveted on Israel; this is paramount. The state’s supposed depredations elicit far more easily the rent of indignation, which is not easily extracted from discussions of the fate of populations that no one cares about. The treatment of such groups is not imagined to excite the interest of the domestic subalterns, who are to be addressed in the anti-Israel discourse.

The left is dying from this. And the Socialist Party, in a bad way, sees no evil. The enormity of the issue is revealed in the fact that the left’s first demonstration of “radicalism” came under the slogan of “Israel, apartheid state.” Even worse is that the left remained a united bloc in the face of this maneuver, that it closed ranks to hurl accusations back at the government, this is the sine qua non of the NUPES’ flaws. The president of the Socialist Party group in Parliament, Boris Vallaud, alleged that the Minister of Justice had unjustly beaten up on the LFI arsonists. This was “ill-advised,” because the battle against antisemitism should generate “a sacred union.” Where is this sacred union? In the observation that antisemitic expression and acts are a crime? This attests to the existence of a facile consensus, prevailing among even LFI and the Communists, not the presence of a unitary force. We are not advancing one inch in the capacity to detect the crime that antisemitism is, and therefore to fight it, which should be the goal of such a union, if its warlike reference had any meaning. Fighting it begins by asking ourselves by which paths it is actually developing, recognizing that anti-Zionism has been an essential one for several decades. But in the end, if there is a category that we are careful not to look at too closely, it is precisely anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism, not so much insofar as it differs from antisemitism, as is claimed (with more or less good intentions), but insofar as it differs from a true critique of Israel, such as one does not bother to conduct – a critique that would be focused on what this state is actually becoming, as a result of both internal and external factors.

But on these reflections, concerning both the link between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, of which Europe has developed its own version, and the relationship between empirical reality and the critique of Israel, the left has gone totally AWOL. It has nothing to say.

This is what is proudly stated through the proclamation, hand on heart, of the sacred union. For if such a union did exist, it would be interested even a little in the distinctions that are being talked about, instead of cowering behind declarations of purity and non-committal declamations. What is at stake here is a self-analysis of Europe, in its progressive vein. It is obvious that this self-analysis cannot escape a first gesture, which conditions everything else, and without which no consistent statement, in internal or external politics, can emerge. This gesture involves questioning the place that criticism of Israel takes within criticism in general, that is to say, the reasons for its importance, its actual uses, as a product “made in Europe” (and, for a significant part, “made in France” and “made in the UK,” the other European countries being more often than not content to echo it).

The resolution of 22 July will have made things quite apparent. By showing the eagerness of our left to position itself in this way and on this electoral terrain, by saying – because the resolution said nothing else – that this is a pillar of radicalism which it is important to champion very quickly, this left has set the scene.

It is now up to the real socialists to break this mold, and advance a critique of a completely different kind. The reconstruction of the left here encounters one of its major tests. The left must avoid repeating the same boilerplate rhetoric, in union with the self-proclaimed pseudo-radicals.

Israel, that is to say the current Israeli policy, is critiquable and deserves to be criticized using the criteria of justice that socialism puts forward, for sure. The state’s policies have undergone a fundamentally regressive nationalist turn in the last two decades, the effects of which have been the ratcheting up of the occupation and settlement in the territories, the use of force to the detriment of the search for peace agreements, and the growing tension in the relationship between the Israeli majority and the Palestinian minority within the borders of the state. The withdrawal from the Gaza Strip led to the seizure of power by Hamas in 2007 and, since then, to the proliferation of radical groups, such as Islamic Jihad, a far-right group characterized by the exclusive choice of armed struggle and strictly Islamist nationalism. At the same time, and as paradoxical as it may seem, this general deterioration has been accompanied, on the Israeli political scene itself, by new opportunities for Palestinian movements – some of which base their political vision on Islam, in an Israeli nationalist context where the religious parties of the two communities are gaining strength – to make their voices heard more strongly and to carry more weight in the game than in the past. None of this, of course, is reflected in the 22 July resolution, which confines itself – by its own admission – to cribbing notes from an already existing critical literature that has fed the BDS camp for several years. Nothing of a socialist critique of nationalisms and neo-nationalisms in the area militarily dominated by Israel finds any support here.

Now we understand why. It is because if we can be satisfied with criticism without criticism, it is because the problem is not really to found a real critique. It is not to produce a diagnosis of the current Israeli situation and its evolutions. What matters is only that anti-Zionism declares itself, thus responding to a European left-wing need. This is why we see that it is indeed the decisive sensor of attention, the confirmation that is sought. Further, it is important that this fulfilled need does its job, i.e. distracts the left from its real critical tasks, which are more costly and more complicated to formulate and to take on. This is unfortunately instructive as to what the left is in Europe today, and of its impasses, which are reproduced in the field of international views, because they are already determined at the level of national and European politics. Socialism simply risks perishing by not understanding this.

What we see, for the moment, is that nothing is changing in this respect. That is, Bebel’s formula continues to apply, but this time in a baleful inversion. No longer is “antisemitism the socialism of fools.” Rather, “socialism is hardly anything more than the antisemitism of smart guys.”

Bruno Karsenti

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