One of the most egregious accusations against populism is that it is to blame for a new form of anti-Semitism. According to this view populism in both its left and right guises is giving new life to a potent threat to Jews everywhere.
David Hirsh, a senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, is the most prominent British expert making this argument. He has written several articles portraying populism in potentially catastrophic terms as well as making the case at public events. The one I am going to refer to here, as a pithy summary of his argument, is his 2019 blog post in The Times of Israel entitled “Why antisemitism and populism go hand-in-hand” (for some other similar references see below).
I will also focus here, as Hirsh largely does, on the British debate. There are discussions to be had about populism in other countries but they are beyond the scope of this article.
Before moving to the substance of my argument I should preface my remarks by emphasising that there is a lot to admire about Hirsh. He has dedicated his career to better understanding and combatting anti-Semitism. To pursue this objective still further he recently founded the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. He has also written a book, Contemporary Left Antisemitism (2018), which I would recommend to anyone grappling with the subject.
He has been the subject of outrageous hostility. For example, Sara Bafo, the ex-president of Goldsmith’s union described him as a “far right white supremacist”. This is without doubt an abhorrent slur.
Nevertheless when I read his writing on populism and anti-Semitism I feel a sense of dismay. I should make clear this is not simply because I disagree with him on Brexit – although I do profoundly. It is because he seems to let his extreme personal animosity to Brexit – an emotion he is fully entitled to feel – cloud his academic judgement.
All of Hirsh’s articles I have seen on the subject constitute what in academia are sometimes called straw man arguments. In other words they are based on caricatures. They are more rant than considered argument.
This violates a fundamental principle of writing a critique. Flawed ideas need to be tackled in their strongest form rather than their weakest. It is easy to demolish an incoherent or garbled expression of an idea. It is much harder to do it when it is expressed in a developed form. Yet to win an argument it is necessary to do the latter.
If I were going to writing a convincing critique of Brexit he could refer to such broadly sympathetic works as National Populism (2018) by Matthew Godwin and Roger Eatwell. I would also reference publications such as spiked-online (to which I contribute) and the Full Brexit which covered the subject extensively. On populism more generally an important text is Frank Furedi’s Populism and the European Cultural Wars (2018).
But, instead of such a considered reflection on these or many other works, Hirsh’s case rests on sweeping assertions such as this:
“Politics in our time is about defending democracy against an arrayed series of related attacks that we might call ‘populist’. Each populism is at heart an irrational conspiracy fantasy. Each insists that democracy is fake and each populism blames some group of our fellow citizens for all our troubles, demonising them as ‘enemy of the people’”
When I read such claims I can only scratch my head. I fail to recognise myself in the description. Nor do I see the large number of Brexit supporters I have spoken to over the years. On the contrary, I and many others advocated for Brexit precisely because we passionately believed it was a democratic cause.
I am also unremittingly hostile to conspiracy theories, not least because they lend themselves to anti-Semitism. I oppose conspiracy theories when they come from populists but also when they are advanced by anti-populists. The bizarre attempts to attribute the result of the Brexit referendum to Russian influence are a striking example. Conspiracy theories are, sadly, common across the political divide. They are far from unique to populism.
Nor do I believe that democracy is fake. On the contrary, I think the problem is that it is not nearly as deep or extensive enough. On that basis I also support the abolition of the House of Lords and the Monarchy.
The clause of Hirsh’s second sentence seems to be at least in part a coded reference to the supposed racism of Brexit supporters. Yet all my adult life I have consistently opposed any discrimination against black people or any other social groups.
The case for Brexit in a pithy phrase was the desire to “take back control”. For most Brexit supporters that meant a defence of popular sovereignty against an out-of-touch elite. It also meant reasserting control over Britain’s borders. Not closure of its borders, or hatred directed towards migrants, but democratic control of Britain’s borders. Membership of the European Union (EU) removed that control.
My views on Brexit were at least broadly in line with the general view of Brexit voters as evidenced by opinion polls. For instance, the Ashcroft poll conducted on the day of the referendum vote indicated the main reason people voted for Brexit was the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.
The second most popular reason given for supporting Brexit was a desire for the UK to regain control over immigration and its borders. Yet it would be wrong to see in this, as steadfast opponents of Brexit often do, an indication of racism. On the contrary, it is also striking that opinion polls seem to indicate post-Brexit Britain is generally a liberal place in relation to racism. For example, a Guardian article went so far as to summarise a 2022 survey by the National Centre for Social Research as follows: “A majority of the public agree with so-called woke positions on issues such as racial equality, immigration and sexual identity”.
No doubt none of this evidence would sway Hirsh’s core opinions on Brexit. He would probably also argue (with some justification) that some of the hopes of Brexit supporters have not been realised. But instead of tackling the pro-Brexit arguments he trades in insults.
The flip side of Brexit supporters’ defence of Britain’s national sovereignty is a critique of the anti-democratic character of the EU. Here Hirsh makes the false claim that Brexit supporters made no critique of Brussels politics (by which I assume he means EU institutions). He does not seem to have taken the trouble to have checked whether such works exist. If he had he would have found James Heartfield’s The European Union and the End of Politics (2013) and Chris Bickerton’s The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (2016). Of course if he had read them he would probably find much to disagree with but to assert that no such books exist is breathtaking.
It is bad enough that someone of Hirsh’s calibre should indulge in such flawed critiques of Brexit, and populism in general, in relation to anti-Semitism. But his criticisms lead him to perverse political conclusions.
The most striking is in relation to Corbynism, or what Hirsh typically characterises as left wing populism. Hirsh has made many valid criticisms of the pernicious anti-Semitism in Britain’s Labour party. He has also suffered a severe backlash as a result. However, his characterisation of Corbynism as a populist movement is bizarre.
Jeremy Corbyn himself, although a long-time Brexit supporter, stayed largely silent on the subject when it really mattered. As leader of the Labour party he failed to campaign for Britain’s exit from the EU in 2016. A year later he flirted with the idea of a second referendum which could potentially overrule the first.
Moreover, the left wing Momentum group within the Labour party, the core of Corbyn’s support was strongly in favour of the EU. It campaigned for a remain vote in 2016 Later on it backed a referendum on the deal that Theresa May, Britain’s then prime minister, had negotiated.
So Hirsh ends up, at least implicitly, characterising a movement that strongly supported Britain’s membership of the EU as populist. Yet opposition to the EU has long been the touchstone of whether someone in Britain supports populism.
An added irony is that on the question of the EU there is not that much difference between Hirsh’s position and that of Momentum. They clearly disagree in relation to Israel and anti-Semitism but not on Brexit. It seems to have escaped Hirsh’s attention that his views are broadly aligned with those of the Corbynistas in determined opposition to Brexit.
It should also be noted that it is much more straightforward for populists than anti-populists to defend Israel’s right to exist. Populism is in fact a broad category – more diverse than Hirsh’s criticisms allow - but generally populists support the national right to self-determination. From this premise it is relatively straightforward to argue that the national sovereignty of Israel, like other nations, should be respected.
In contrast, those who are sceptical of, let alone hostile to, the national right to self-determination generally find it harder to make the case for Israel. In many cases, as with Momentum, they are actively hostile but even those who are more sympathetic are likely to find it more challenging to make convincing arguments.
David Hirsh is of course fully entitled to argue that populism lends itself to anti-Semitism. But it behoves someone of such considerable prestige to write serious critiques rather than engaging in ill-informed assertions. Otherwise it would be better to focus on the all too many other areas of anti-Semitism that demand urgent investigation.