Dealing with anti-semitism may require jettisoning more of the politics of envy, populism, and collectivism than the left is capable of.
The debate over the left’s anti-semitism problem has continued unabated recently. The Labour Party continues to flip-flop over whether people who hate Jews are welcome in the party, and the student left continues to struggle to discern exactly how far purported anti-zionism can legitimately go. Blatant anti-semitism from sources with no credibility threatens to permeate social media consciousness.
The Zionism-Judaism dilemma is well documented. The idea that anyone who criticises Israel or its policies is a closet Goebbels fan is obviously unhelpful and unintelligent. Equally, anti-zionism often covers for racists who peddle hate and uninformed conspiratorial nonsense. And it is worryingly easy for racist rhetoric and Rothschild-paranoia to seep into mainstream anti-zionism.
The real difficulty, though, is that the problem goes deeper than Israel. Certain aspects of left-wing thought naturally lend themselves towards anti-semitism, and the history of left-wing anti-semitism pre-dates the founding of Israel and has similar roots to modern right-wing anti-semitism. Nineteenth century left-wing circles discussed the “Jewish Question” in parallel with proto-fascists, often in similar racist terms.
Such anti-semitic anxieties are best encapsulated by the Tsarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The stereotype of Jews as the rootless cosmopolitan, Machiavellian, privileged, intellectual, financial elite has similar ugly resonance for populist collectivist instincts on the right and the left alike.
Jews are statistically successful and well educated, and do have historical ties with the development of capitalism and finance.Christian and Islamic laws against usury and the exclusion of Jews from many trade guilds meant that Jews occupied many undesirable roles under feudalism, such as money lending. Ironically, this exclusion from the existing rigid class system, combined with the Jewish ethos of self-reliance and distaste for the Christian fetishisation of poverty, meant Jews were well placed to take advantage of (and flourish under) a developing capitalist economy, which placed profit before identity and tribalism. Equally, Jews retained something of an outsider status, as they never really fit neatly into the monolithic class identities that purportedly defined most European nations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Given the left’s one-dimensional underdog-centric view of society, this has created a complex relationship with Jews. Where anti-semitic discrimination and bigotry comes from a white elite, it’s easy for the left to oppose it. Whenever it is tied up with, say, resentment of international finance, it’s much harder. When Jewish intellectuals are Marxists or working on a Kibbutz, they are (somewhat) shielded. When they become free-market economists or neo-conservatives, insidious stereotypes can creep back into respectable discourse.
The problem has been exacerbated by the rise of identity politics. Whether Anti-Semitism is a problem, or is even racism, has become solely a discussion of whether Jews are privileged (and whether they count as white or not). The need to reduce people into interest groups based on victimhood and identity is also uncomfortable for a largely assimilated group. As it is, the left lack the insight to understand Jewish discomfort at being racialised and ghettoised, given this is the standard currency of the intersectional left. There is a reason that it was painfully believable that Corbyn’s solution to Labour’s anti-semitism issue was to appoint a horribly ill-conceived ‘minister for Jews’.
This also explains the focus on Israel over and above other countries engaged in worse human rights abuses. It is not so much racism as the view that Israel is automatically more reprehensible due to being tainted by colonialism, success, and association with America.
Successfully balancing legitimate criticism of Israel with combating anti-semitism would be an achievement, and many left-wingers are recognising that this needs to beaddressed. But really dealing with anti-semitism may require jettisoning more of the politics of envy, populism, and collectivism than the left is capable of.
Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh