How it became fashionable for the Left to hate Israel – despite its model of ‘tolerance’

Israel protests
'The bandwagon has been against Zionism for a very, very long time. And certain people like to jump on that bandwagon', says Dame Maureen Lipman

Six months on from the October 7 attacks and anti-Zionism has well and truly come back into fashion.

As Coronation Street actress Dame Maureen Lipman, 77, recently pointed out, criticising the Jewish state seems to have become positively trendy, particularly among the so-called “luvvy” set.

Few will forget the speed with which actors such as Tilda Swinton, Steve Coogan, Charles Dance and Maxine Peake signed an open letter condemning Israel’s military response to the massacre – conspicuously failing to reference Hamas, not to mention the 253 Israelis taken hostage by the proscribed terror group.

According to Dame Maureen: “The bandwagon has been against Zionism for a very, very long time. And certain people like to jump on that bandwagon. It is very fashionable.

“As we say, anti-Semitism is a light sleeper. It is not fashionable in the world of wokeism and diversity to admire the Jewish state. It is fashionable to wish it to be wiped out as an entity.”

But just when did it become all the rage for the Left to hate Israel?

David Baddiel, pictured in 2021, describes anti-Semitism as the 'oldest form of hatred'
David Baddiel, pictured in 2021, describes anti-Semitism as the 'oldest form of hatred' - Jamie Lorriman

David Baddiel’s 2021 book Jews Don’t Count details why anti-Semitism, which he describes as “the oldest form of hatred”, has long been neglected as an issue by the Left.

The comedian and author says: “It’s primarily about the mythic association of Jews with power and – to answer your question about why now – it’s because now we, or at least sections of the modern online-driven Left, tend to see the world entirely in terms of power.

“[American novelist] Jonathan Safran Foer in my documentary [Jews Don’t Count] said that ‘If you only see the world in terms of victimisers versus victimised, then it is very hard to see Jews as the victimised.’

“The vast history of Jewish disempowerment gets erased in a contemporary hunger for deciding quickly and absolutely where the power is, and obviously that is intensified by a conflict in the Middle East where the power versus powerless binary seems so real and stark. As a result, the idea that Jews are powerful and controlling the narrative (a conceit shared by Right and Left) is much more sayable out loud.”

Pointing out that Jews “or at least Israeli-supporting ones” have “singularly failed to control the narrative” and “have entirely lost the PR war”, he adds: “Anti-Semitism has also become caught in a culture war binary. Caring about and calling out anti-Semitism has become seen as something associated with the right – which obviously makes it something the Left would therefore steer away from.”

Referencing the Harvard, Penn and MIT hearings in the US, when the presidents of those universities couldn’t bring themselves to say “yes” to the question: “Does your university condemn calls for the genocide of Jews?”, he recalls: “Then SNL [Saturday Night Live] did a sketch about it where the main object of satire was not the university presidents for failing to answer but the senator asking the question – Elise Stefanik – as she’s a Trump supporter.”

Anti-Semitism might well be a centuries-old form of bigotry, but as David Rich, author of the 2016 book The Left’s Jewish Problem, points out, it wasn’t always fashionable for the Left to support Iran-backed Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis over the only true democracy in the Middle East.

Noting that the Left was once so supportive of Zionism that the Soviet Union was the first to legally recognise Israel, three days after it declared its independence in 1948, he says: “That started to break down after it became apparent following the Six Day War in 1967 that Israel was no longer this plucky little nation but emerging as a significant military power.” Agreeing with Baddiel, he adds: “After that, Israel was perceived as a winner. On one level the Left likes to support people who are oppressed and suffering and that’s very noble but there’s an underlying analysis of the world that everything that goes wrong is orchestrated by these networks of power.”

Lord Mandelson
Lord Mandelson says the passing of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 in 1975 was a pivotal moment for crystallising anti-Israel sentiment on the Left - Jamie Lorriman

Against a backdrop of progressives campaigning against the Vietnam war, apartheid and colonialism, he argues, “the Palestinian struggle just seemed to fit into that politics”.

Even though the New Left which emerged in the 1960s was largely anti-Stalinist, it built upon the Stalinist position of Israel being an agent of American imperialism, imposing suffering on Arab masses. The fall of the Soviet Union only made things worse, with all focus on the US being the remaining superpower, fuelling a wave of anti-Semitism, encapsulated in a “Jews control the world” narrative that still pervades to this day.

Lord Mandelson, who served in the cabinets of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, believes that a pivotal moment for crystallising anti-Israel sentiment on the Left was the passing of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 in 1975, which determined “that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”. Before long, young liberals were drawing parallels between Israel and South Africa. Jews who had fled to Palestine were soon depicted as white colonisers from the West, despite the majority having fled persecution from Europe, accompanied by those expelled from Arab countries.

According to Mandelson: “That UN resolution essentially affected the entire student population at the time – and of course, the Left. In the 1970s, they adopted a view then and never deviated from it.” Citing the Israeli–Lebanese conflict, which peaked in the 1980s, he adds: “Lebanon turbo charged anti-Israel sentiment along with the failure of the Oslo peace accord signed in the 1990s.” Although Mandelson doesn’t mention the Iraq War, Rich believes it further mobilised the Left who quickly found common ground in their shared hostility to Israel with British Muslims - which has been echoed in the recent pro-Palestinan marches.

Mandelson adds: “The Palestinian cause has simply become totemic – didactic, even – there’s no room for debate. It’s completely emotionally charged and it’s also become a recruiting sergeant for the hard Left against moderates in the Labour party.”

The election of Jeremy Corbyn, a former chairman of the Stop The War coalition, as Labour leader in 2015 marked a generational shift in politics
The election of Jeremy Corbyn, a former chairman of the Stop The War coalition, as Labour leader in 2015 marked a generational shift in politics - Hollie Adams/Getty

Never was that more in evidence than Jeremy Corbyn’s shock election as Labour leader in 2015. It wasn’t just that the MP for Islington North was a former chairman of the Stop the War coalition who had referred to Hamas and Hezbollah members as “friends”.

“David Rich is going back to 1967 but there’s also been a more recent generational shift,” says Jonathan Hunter of the Pinsker Centre think tank. “The bottom end of the Millennial generation and the first of the Gen Zs were students when Corbyn was in power.

“They were quite influential in his election as Labour leader. They said to the local [Labour] associations – we won’t campaign unless you support Corbyn. These students are no longer inconsequential. They’re putting headlines on BBC stories, providing briefing notes to MPs and so on. From Owen Jones to Zarah Sultana – these anti-Zionists came up through student politics.”

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement also created fertile ground for a resurgence of anti-Israel sentiment.

According to Hunter: “Amid all the talk of white supremacy and colonialism, we had people basically making out that Israel was an outpost of the British empire. It was a turning point and that resonated with students. If you look at the polls in terms of how people perceive Israel – those under 40 have the most critical opinions. That generation also faces a huge amount of problems that previous generations haven’t faced – with housing, wages, cost of living and if you look at the 20th century – anti-Semitism is a scapegoat and popular tool to distract people.

“People have come to regard Jews as white, privileged, and at the top of the hierarchy. A lot of it is unknowing. People don’t see it as bigotry.”

Rich adds: “This has become very strongly connected to politics of race and racism; the idea that all conflicts whether at home or abroad are due to racist power structures. By extension, Zionists and Jews are seen as manifestations of racism and white supremacy.”

Add social media into the mix and it quickly becomes “fashionable” to be anti-Israel, and by extension, for anti-Semitism to be casualised. A situation too complex to be broken down into a 30-second Instagram video or a 280-character post on X ends up being over simplified. As many untruths as truths are spread. Hatred, fuelled by ignorance, quickly festers in an echo chamber of resentment.

As Rich concludes: “Jews play a very important role in the history of our civilization because we are a Christianity-based nation which emerged out of Judaism. Jews and Jewish things have always been given a relevance and symbolism which is disproportionate to the size and importance of Jewish community. I always say that Wayne Rooney has more followers on Instagram than there are Jews in the world.”

The power historically attributed to Israel appears to have spawned a cult of anti-Semitism among a supposedly right-on brigade that models itself on tolerance and yet currently finds it more fashionable to be anything but.