Scandals over alleged anti-Semitism have recently ensnared leftist British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn; the populist Yellow Vest movement, which leans both Left and Right (and neither, rejecting both); and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), critic of Israel and supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign, to cut off all trade and contact with Israel’s government, Israeli companies and institutions, including academic and cultural exchange. The characterization of anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools” is attributed to German socialist pioneer August Bebel, who saw the late 19th-century rise of anti-Semitic politics as the cooptation of the masses, redirecting their resentment at their exploitation away from capitalism and towards the Jews, most of whom were fellow workers. This very phrase has been hurled at both Corbyn and Omar by opponents who are decidedly not striving for true socialism—in fact, who arguably hate their targets’ socialist tendencies more than the prejudice they are alleging. Many leftists decry the “weaponization” of (the charge of) anti-Semitism, as an effort to delegitimize the Left and undercut resistance to the oppression of Palestinians and to colonial and imperial practices in general. But is that the whole story, is anti-Semitism not an issue for the Left?
The Corbyn controversy started a little over a year ago, with the exposure of a supportive Facebook message to American graffiti artist Mear One, whose 2012 London mural “Freedom for Humanity” was in the process of being removed for its depiction of stereotypically Jewish masters of the globe and for utilizing the longstanding anti-Semitic trope that Jews secretly rule the world. It heated up last summer, with Corbyn condemned for his presence at a 2014 wreath-laying ceremony in Tunisia for the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympics terror attack, in which Palestinian commandos killed 11 members of the Israeli team. He was also slammed for alleged associations with Holocaust deniers. Corbyn apologized for these and other actions, while affirming his support for the Palestinian cause and lifelong opposition to all forms of racism and prejudice. The crisis came to a head with the resignation from the Party of nine Labour Members of Parliament, citing the lack of a stronger opposition to Brexit, but primarily his and the Party’s supposed anti-Semitism. But this split, certainly damaging, seems to have its roots more in the conflict between the (1997-2007 Prime Minister Tony) Blairite neoliberal faction, stronger in Parliament, and the Corbynite socialist party leadership, which has dominant support among the grassroots membership.
In France, the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement supporting the struggles of rural and semiurban workers and lower-middle class families against the pro-rich policies and elitism of President Emmanuel Macron and his government (see my February/March Public i article) has also been attacked as harboring anti-Semitism. Assaults on Macron that highlight his previous employment at the Rothschild bank, started by the first prominent Jewish banking family, play with conspiracy theories that blame the Jews for all the ravages of capitalism, similar to the aforementioned mural. An incident involving the anti-Semitic verbal harassment of French Jewish writer Alain Finkielkraut by Yellow Vest protesters, despite his expressions of support for the movement, sharpened the question. But the movement has by and large resisted the desperate entreaties of the far-right National Front to join its camp, and neither anti-Semitism nor anti-immigrant sentiment has been prominent in it.
The “Omar Affair” followed a couple of questionable comments, but stemmed largely from a single tweet, in an exchange with journalist Glenn Greenwald, who criticized those castigating her for her anti-Israel positions. She quoted the 1997 Puff Daddy title “It’s All About the Benjamins [hundred-dollar bills],” implying that the pro-Israel lobby is buying American democracy. She was rebuked by the Democratic House Caucus, and apologized. Here too, as with Corbyn, it seems clear that much or even most of the animus towards her is because of her advocacy of Palestinian rights and support for BDS, anathema to both the major parties (and most likely because of her gender and race as well). And yet, the employment of the idea that Jews particularly use money for manipulative purposes, and that Israel controls US policy and politics, harkens back to historically dangerous stereotypes. (And it has been argued that it is the other way around: the US government, bolstered in no small part by the evangelical Right, which centers its own apocalyptic religious visions on the so-called Holy Land, has long pushed Israel into its regional militarism and refusal to compromise for peace, as well as into doing the US’s dirty work around the world–in one critic’s phrase, being a “handmaiden . . to American Empire.”)
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has been courting the Visegrad Countries (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary), all with right-wing nationalist governments that have trafficked extensively in racism and anti-Semitism. Poland’s efforts—scaled back after international protests—to revise history by making it illegal to put any of the blame for the Holocaust on the Polish nation led to some critical comments by Netanyahu’s government, scuttling a planned Jerusalem summit in February. But Netanyahu declared Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a “true friend of Israel” during his visit to Jerusalem, despite his multiple offenses against his own and the worldwide Jewish community: the 2014 monument to the 1944 German occupation that absolved Hungarians of their own Holocaust responsibility (see my Summer 2014 piece in the Public i); campaigns against Hungarian-American Jewish financier/philanthropist George Soros that blanketed the country with imagery reminiscent of the Nazis’; and the founding of a museum that appropriates the Holocaust for the Hungarian nationalist vision and has been strongly opposed by local Jewish organizations.
Opposition to Israel’s brutal and relentless policies towards the Palestinians, or “anti-Zionism,” as it is often figured, is not anti-Semitic—the movement for justice in the Middle East involves many committed Jews and Jewish-identified groups (Jewish Voice for Peace and Bend the Arc are both active locally). But that does not mean that Zionism is necessarily racism—as some pro-Palestinian groups have been declaring and urging allies to declare. Figures like the “cultural Zionist” Ahad Ha’am, who in the early 20th century looked forward to a binational state in Palestine; Albert Memmi, Tunisian-Jewish critic of colonialism who never gave up his identification with Zionism; and German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, a fierce critic of Jewish and Israeli faults, who forged her political persona in the Zionist movement, all belie that equation. While BDS is not anti-Semitic on its face, and current efforts in the US and Israel to ban support for it are outrages against free speech and constitutional rights, I find BDS problematic: as we saw with the boycott of UIUC in the wake of the Salaita scandal, it is the parts of the Israeli polity (or, in the case of Salaita, the university) that are most sympathetic to the cause that are hurt the most; at least on the terrain of cultural exchange, the powers-that-be in both cases could care less.
The weaponization of the charge of anti-Semitism against the Left, as anti-Semitism itself, is part and parcel of white supremacy, a divide-and-rule tactic that deflects blame for a blanket and longstanding prejudice. Let us not forget that the Charlottesville neo-Nazis shouted “Jews will not replace us!,” and that the Poway, CA synagogue attacker admired the Christchurch mosque shooter, and had himself previously assaulted a mosque. But, as in the case of other prejudices deeply embedded in our society, the Left is also not immune to anti-Semitism, often appearing as a lack of appreciation of the legacy of hatred of the Jews and its tropes, and of sensitivity to Jews’ perceptions and anxieties, including about the Holocaust. A good place for education is the Jews for Racial and Economic Justice pamphlet “Understanding Antisemitism: An Offering to Our Movement,” prepared with substantial involvement from and attention to “JOCs” (Jews of Color)—Latin American, Ethiopian, North African, Indian and other Jews, who often suffer a double racism.
Richard Esbenshade is, as the saying goes, “not a Jew, just Jew-ish.” He is the son of a Protestant father and a Jewish mother, raised secular-Unitarian. He has taught and written about the Holocaust and Eastern Europe.