Foreword to republication of “That’s funny, you don’t look anti-Semitic” by Steve Cohen

Steve Cohenʹs little pale‐blue book on left‐wing antisemitism caused a rumpus in the colleges when it first came out. Helped by the arresting title, which still raises a smile, Thatʹs Funny You Donʹt Look Anti‐Semitic appeared in the coffee bars, Labour Clubs and Jewish Societies during the Miners Strike of 1984‐85. Back then there were lots of Jewish lefties and the campus battles between Jewish students and the operational antisemites were starting to hot up again.

Thatʹs Funny was a timely intervention. It helped prepare anti‐racists for these battles. And it had an emotional impact on the reader. One socialist undergrad from Manchester vividly remembers sitting in a sunny park and reading it in one go, open mouthed. I remember sitting in the politicoʹs end, the smoke‐filled, messy end of Manchester University Students Unionʹs coffee bar and looking around at the three tables of students all reading the same book. And these were not the type of students who did a lot of reading. Thatʹs Funny was compelling.

Over at the politically‐Jewish table sat the leaders of UJS (Union of Jewish Students) and the Union sabbaticals (full‐timers) who had always felt there was something off about the left (in addition to their socialism) but hadnʹt really mastered the subject. It took a while for them to read each page because they didnʹt understand all the references to the left. I donʹt suppose they liked Steveʹs attacks on the Jewish Communityʹs leadership.

I sat at the SO table. SO (Socialist Organiser—the group that later became the Alliance for Workersʹ Liberty) students were swiftly moving towards a ʺTwo Nations, Two Statesʺ position and generally got on fine with Jewish students. We were chilled by that book. Although by 84 we had started to talk about left wing antisemites we were not yet on top of the arguments (Sunderland Poly Student Union had not yet banned its J Soc— it would be another couple of months before this massive learning experience convulsed the student movement and required us to become fluent opponents of antisemitism). We were slow readers too. It took us a while to read each page because we didnʹt understand the Jewish stuff and because we broke off our reading to denounce Cohen as a cultural nationalist—while we giggled, tickled by the wonderfully crazy, eccentric fact of the existence of a Bundist in 1984.

And then there was the table of Jewish lefties. Weʹd been their mates for a while—gone to the same parties and on the same demos. Weʹd never been asked our position on Israel on a picket line: they had and their accusers were not looking for conversation. Instead they were making sure these Jews knew they were not part of the left. I guess these guys liked the book the most, even if they did agree with us about the Bund and even though they might have agreed with their other mates that Steve was too harsh on the communal leadership. These guys speed read the book. They understood the lefty bits and the Jewish bits.

The rest of the left, the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) and Workers Power were sitting at a fourth table. They were not reading Thatʹs Funny. But it seemed to me they were starting to feel uncomfortable. Rowing about Zionism was a popular sport in that coffee bar, but to me it didnʹt look as though they fancied another ten rounds against the recharged, reinforced blue‐red alliance just right then.

These battle lines and alliances were already drawn up by the time Sunderland Poly Student Union banned its J Soc. Then they hardened by the day. Thatʹs Funny didnʹt cause those battle lines and it didnʹt make any of us Bundists. But it did provide excellent references and it did provide a framework for understanding left‐antisemitism. I think it played a role in legitimising the discussion: the very idea that there is left‐wing antisemitism. As SO students we would have been far more isolated if that book hadnʹt been around. At least we could point to a real book to back up our claims.

Thatʹs Funnyʹs 21st Century reprint has caused a lot of bother too.

Iʹd never met Steve Cohen before I popped up to Prestwich to see if he wanted to post the otherwise unavailable Thatʹs Funny on the Engage website. I offered him space to write a new introduction.

In the 20 years since writing Thatʹs Funny, Steve has been the lawyer for and leader of anti‐deportation campaigns and he has occasionally written for the AWLʹs publications—both Solidarity and Socialist Organiser. Given this pedigree you can imagine the surprise when he turned out an Introduction with which I hardly agree on any point. For instance, Steve has an unusual position on the Israel/Palestine conflict. He thinks that all nationalism is racist and so he is ʺagainstʺ nation states on principle. In his head, his particular anti‐Zionism does not single out Israel. He has equally unusual politics in relation to all nationalisms and states. But itʹs not good manners to trash a deal just because Steveʹs new Introduction is politically miles away from Engage. And itʹs not on to retrospectively trash Thatʹs Funny either. In fact, Pangloss insists that ThatʹsFunny stands in a better light when the politics of the author are understood: he has one foot in the camp of the anti‐Zionists and yet he is still mortified by left‐antisemitism. Steve Cohenʹs position is that Engage underestimates the power of left‐wing antisemitism.

Thatʹs Funny You Donʹt Look Anti‐Semitic

There Must Be Some Way Out of Here

Jane Ashworth

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