Why is anti-Semitism crawling out of the shadows?

July 16, 2018

The left needs to look back at history to understand how to fight the resurgence of anti-Semitic attacks and speech coming from the far right today, writes Stephanie Schwartz.

ANTI-SEMITISM has come crawling back into popular politics, together with the far-right fringe that had kept it quiet, but never abandoned it.

According to an audit by the Anti-Defamation League, there were 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in 2017, up 57 percent from the previous year. Far from being concentrated in “red states,” the highest number of anti-Semitic events occurred in New York, California, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

This increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks on Jewish places of worship, cemeteries and elsewhere exists in other countries, particularly where far-right political forces have had successes.

From Trump and the alt-right in the U.S., to the UK Independence Party in Britain, Le Pen and the National Front in France, Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary), Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and the more recently Alternative for Germany, formerly marginal far-right elements have been on the rise, and even winning.

Anti-Semites vandalized a cemetery in Southern Illinois
Anti-Semites vandalized a cemetery in Southern Illinois

There is a twist, though: Many of these far-right parties combine their hateful racist scapegoating with a firm defense of Israel — particularly because Israel and Zionism are seen as allies in a war on Muslims, who are a major scapegoat of the right.

The increasing prominence of the far right is contributing to a definite rise in the level of anti-Semitism — which had been lower, in North America at least, until recently — but this is happening that the same time that most far-right forces are embracing Israel and Zionism.

In a June 15 letter to the Guardian, more than two dozen academics and activists argued that the first step in fighting anti-Semitism is accurately defining it. “Holocaust denial, the blood libel, conspiracy theories about supposed Jewish power or the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide — all are expressions of anti-Semitism,” they argue, while “criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic unless motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice.”

This distinction is important. On the left, it is a common experience to be accused of anti-Semitism for criticizing Israel.

So while Trump’s presidency and the rise of the alt-right coincided with this rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S., they alone don’t explain the trend. In order to understand anti-Semitism today, it’s helpful to look at its origins.

THE BEST source for a Marxist history of the Jewish people is Abram Leon’s The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation.

Leon was a Jewish Trotskyist born in Warsaw in 1918. His family moved to Belgium in 1926, where he eventually became a leader of the socialist movement. In 1944, at the age of 26, Leon was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, shortly before his book was published. The basics of Leon’s work have been confirmed by later authors who had wider access to information than he did living under Nazi occupation.

Leon’s premise was that in order to understand the conditions of the Jewish people, we have to understand their economic relationships.

Leon found that Jews in the Diaspora overwhelmingly became traders. Palestine — home to a Jewish community for millennia — served as a bridge between the Euphrates and the Nile: two ends of the early settled societies and empires centered in modern-day Northern Africa and the Middle East.

The Jews’ location and social position — as traders who were part of an ethnic minority, with connections in different regions — led kings and emperors to grant them semi-autonomy. Most were not very wealthy traders, but peddlers, stevedores and petty artisans.

The Jewish condition declined significantly in the 12th century when cities were growing and forming their own native commercial and industrial classes, which were driven to anti-Semitic violence and periodic expulsions of Jews.

This is when the primary economic function of Jews became usury — lending money — a position they were allowed to occupy because it was forbidden to other religions.

For the landed nobility, another purpose of restricting moneylending to a subordinate class is that it prevented the lenders from challenging their power. But the problem with being a lender to kings is that the kings can just take your money when they get greedy — which they did.

Members of the elite accused Jews of absurd crimes, such as using Christian blood in rituals or poisoning wells. Jews were expelled from England, France and other Western European countries multiple times so that their property could be seized. They moved to less economically developed areas in Eastern Europe, such as Poland.

Jews in Poland were able to maintain their positions as usurers, but only for a time until Polish feudalism also entered a crisis, leading to a flare-up of “the Jewish Problem” in Eastern Europe.

Other economic changes impacted the Jews as well. By the 19th century, the liberation of peasants created a market for manufactured products. Jews left towns for bigger cities and jobs. Small Jewish artisan workshops came into competition with industrial production.

Many Jews moved back west, where “the Jewish Problem” had all but vanished. Those who remained no longer had the special protection they enjoyed during feudalism. With Jews dislodged from their social and economic positions, a Jewish proletariat was born.

Under capitalism — and especially after the stock market crash in 1929 and the subsequent depression of the 1930s — the need for the ruling class to have a scapegoat to blame reared its head again. Given the history of feudal anti-Semitism, Jews were unfortunately vulnerable as a target for the far right.

The depression threw the petty bourgeoisie into crisis. Many were convinced that Jews were their competition. Similarly, resentment among workers devastated by the crisis was misdirected by the right toward what anti-Semites called “Jewish capitalism.” This ended in catastrophe, when the German Nazi party came to power and, amid its war in Europe, carried out the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.

With Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, and the shame of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was pushed to the fringes in the West.

But not permanently, it seems.

PART OF the explanation for the recent increase in anti-Semitism is the rise of the far right in response to the crisis of neoliberalism — the set of policies favoring the free market and austerity, which have been shared by political leaders from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on the center right, to Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barack Obama.

Cracks have been showing for a while in the neoliberal consensus of establishment politics, but the financial crisis of 2008 caused a crisis. It became obvious to everyone that not only was the economy not lifting most boats, but a lot of them were sinking. Millions of people concluded that Wall Street and the big banks had crashed the economy.

But establishment politicians had no answers but more of the same: austerity and faith that the market would eventually fix itself. That gave an opportunity to the right to expand its appeal by focusing on scapegoats, both new and traditional ones: immigrants, Muslims, Blacks and even Jews.

The story of anti-Semitism is also more complex, though. For the last few decades — especially since the beginning of the U.S. “war on terror” in 2001 — the far right in the West has tended to keep its traditional anti-Semitism quiet.

On the contrary, there was often a false philo-Semitism, or love of Jews, on the part of the right. Thus, racist intellectuals like Charles Murray listed Jews as one of the so-called genetically superior races, in contrast to Blacks and people of color.

This supposed affinity for Jews particularly involved a ferocious defense of Israel as an outpost of civilization against supposed Arab and Muslim barbarism. The far right in the U.S. and Europe have latched onto the Islamophobic rhetoric of the “war on terror” and have cynically accepted Zionists as allies in doing so.

Thus, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s far-right National Front (NF), once called the Holocaust “a mere detail” and made jokes about roundups of Jews. But his daughter and successor as NF leader, Marine Le Pen, has promised to act as a “shield for Jews” against the threat of Islam.

ONE IRONY in this shift among the far right is that growing numbers of young Jews, many inspired by Black Lives Matter and other movements, are joining the struggle in solidarity with Palestine. There is a greater sense that the historic fight against anti-Semitism and today’s struggles for Palestinian freedom and against Islamophobia go hand in hand.

If anti-Semitism is the misdirection of frustration with the economic system, whether feudalism or capitalism, anti-Zionism is a critique of Israel’s actual colonial project and violence against Palestinians.

Instead, we can make a strong case that Zionism itself is anti-Semitic. At its core, Zionism assumes that Jews cannot live safely alongside other groups and encourages Jews to self-segregate. Early Zionists collaborated with actual Nazis because they both shared an interest in getting Jews out of Europe — the Zionists wanted Jews to occupy a “homeland” in the Middle East.

The structural similarities between anti-Semitism and the Islamophobia embraced by the right wing are striking.

They include the demonization and racialization of a religious minority, which supposedly infiltrates “white countries,” but refuses to assimilate. Both groups are seen as lecherous, inherently “foreign” no matter how long they have lived in a particular country, and bent on dominating and destroying the West — or at least willingly harboring a minority with this goal.

This is somewhat in contrast to the line that other targets of racism are attacked with — that they are “lazy and stupid.” By contrast, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia suggest that Jews and Muslims are actually hyper-capable, and therefore need to be physically expelled or exterminated, not just repressed, in order to keep the homeland safe.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the far right found it simple to latch on to the Islamophobia promoted by the center right and even center left, and then add anti-Semitism back into its repertoire of hate.

Just as Islamophobia jumped to the forefront with the launching of the “war on terror,” anti-Semitism has proved useful again in the long aftermath of the Great Recession. After all, it’s hard to blame the predatory behavior of big banks on Islam, but there is a ready-made traditional scapegoat available.

Thus, we have not a “new anti-Semitism,” but a revival of the old, very Western and pro-colonial kind.

Right-wing Jews like to point out that assimilation won’t necessarily keep Jews safe. They’re not wrong. But their preferred strategy — making Jews a block vote ally to the U.S. imperial state, as seen in the strategy of establishment Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee — certainly won’t work either.

To the extent that such a strategy is even a genuine response to the threat of anti-Semitism, rather than an opportunistic attempt to advance the agenda of Zionism, such a strategy misunderstands the actual roots of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism, like other forms of racism, has been a political tool for capitalism — one with its own unique role, kept in reserve much of the time, but which shows signs of being brought into use again in the 21st century.

Fascism, imperialism, capitalism and modern anti-Semitism are inextricably intertwined. To defeat any of them, we must challenge them all.

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