Antisemitism and the far-right today
Source: International Socialism journal
By Rob Ferguson
Within weeks of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, news and media channels were dominated by charges of antisemitism levelled against his supporters, the National Union of Students and others for their opposition to the State of Israel. The furore has brought the issue of antisemitism into the public domain with a vengeance. More recently, while the campaign against the left continues to resurface, another furore has emerged with the election in the United States of Donald Trump that has focused attention on the spectre of antisemitism on the far-right.
This article aims at an examination of antisemitism today. First, I wish to argue that we face a growing threat of antisemitism from the right, in the context of a general rise in racism, and above all, Islamophobia. Second, I aim to examine the charge that a “new antisemitism” has emerged on the left and among Muslims. Finally, I want to address the extent and character of antisemitism in the Middle East and among Muslim communities and how socialists should respond.
Crisis, reaction and antisemitism
The origins of modern antisemitism lie in the reactionary backlash against the Enlightenment, the French Revolution of 1789-94 and the revolutionary wave of 1848-9. It developed in full form in the late 19th century as antisemites saw a Jewish hand at work in fomenting a rising working class movement; ideologically, antisemitism became articulated in explicitly racial rather than religious terms.1
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Tsarist Russia, antisemitic violence consumed hundreds of thousands of lives; as fear of revolution gripped the ruling classes of Europe and north America, antisemitism deepened across the continent.2 Fearing working class revolt, the German ruling class turned to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. They mobilised their base with a vision of a racial utopia, in which class divisions were dissolved and a united volk (people or nation) vanquished all internal and external foes.3 It was this Nazi project that culminated in the Holocaust.
Today we again face an era of war, nationalism, crisis and reaction. Antisemitism is re-emerging as fascist parties strengthen a base across Europe. Their influence extends from Eastern Europe, south to Golden Dawn in Greece, and west to the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany and the Front National (FN) in France.
In Hungary the neo-Nazis of Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) are currently the second largest single party in the Hungarian National Assembly with over 20 percent of the vote. Hungary is part of a wider trend across Eastern Europe. In March 2016 the Slovak Nazis of the “The People’s Party—Our Slovakia” won 8 percent of the vote in the National Council, securing 23 percent of first time voters. “Our Slovakia” openly claims the mantle of wartime clerical fascist leader Jozef Tiso. In Croatia the ruling Croatian Democratic Union has appointed Zlatko Hasanbegović, a fascist, Holocaust denier and admirer of the wartime Ustashe regime, as minister of culture. In Ukraine the far-right and the fascists of Svoboda and Right Sector have a long history of antisemitism and Holocaust denial. From Bulgaria to Poland, smaller neo-Nazi parties look to replicate this success. In southern Europe the Greek neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn parade with swastika-style insignia and Hitler salutes. The leader of Golden Dawn, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is an open Holocaust denier, declaring: “There were no crematoria, it’s a lie. There were no gas chambers either”.4
In Germany sections of the Islamophobic, anti-migrant AfD have adopted antisemitic positions and pander to Holocaust denial.5 Christoph Blocher, leader of the Swiss People’s Party, has been convicted of antisemitic hate speech. Leading figures of the Sweden Democrats openly deny the Holocaust.
The case of Hungary
Hungary provides important lessons for the left. In the national elections of 2014, the neo-Nazis of Jobbik won over 20 percent of the vote; they are now the second largest party in the National Assembly (third in terms of voting blocs). In the local elections they came in at second place and now have 18 mayors. In opinion polls they are the most popular party among voters under the age of 35.
It is important to locate the roots of Jobbik’s rise in popular support. In the national assembly elections of 2006 Jobbik won a derisory 2.2 percent of the vote. However, in the 2009 European elections they gained almost as many votes as the then ruling Socialist Party. In the 2010 national assembly elections they won 17 percent of the vote, rising to 20 percent in 2014.
In 2008 the world economic crash acted as the catalyst for Jobbik’s electoral fortunes. Over three years, preceding the crash, the Hungarian population were subject to the equivalent of the US subprime mortgage scam on a monumental scale. Millions of households and small businesses were handed insecure foreign currency loans from European owned banks. One third of households took out low interest mortgages in foreign currency. Half of all Hungarian households contracted some form of foreign-currency debt, amounting to 47 percent of GDP by the end of 2009.6
With the crash the Hungarian currency collapsed. As the cost of payments tripled, the financial crisis hit the Hungarian middle class with a vengeance. Life savings evaporated, homes were repossessed and millions of borrowers faced massive loan repayments. One Hungarian told a reporter: “We assumed all along that we would work hard all our lives, and our children would inherit our savings… Now we can see them inheriting our debts”.7 One couple who lost all their belongings explained: “We couldn’t pay our electricity bills…we could not even buy bread… The bank robbed us of everything”.8 Disillusion and despair left fertile ground for Jobbik.
Jobbik built on the deep anti-Roma racism of the Hungarian state and the fury against foreign banks. Institutional anti-Roma racism in Hungary is deeply entrenched. In 2009 Oszkár Molnár, of the governing Fidesz, accused pregnant Romani women of deliberately inducing birth defects by hitting their bellies with a hammer, so they could give birth to “fools to receive higher family subsidies”.9 Jobbik mayors turned on Roma communities and the neo-Nazi Hungarian Guard Movement, Jobbik’s streetfighting paramilitary wing, launched anti-Roma marches and violence.
However, the refugee crisis has enabled both Fidesz and Jobbik to tap into the Europe-wide tide of Islamophobia. Prime minister Viktor Orbán claimed to be defending “Christian Europe” against “invaders”, declaring that every terrorist in Europe was a migrant.10 Jobbik accused Orbán of being ineffective in securing the border and proposed that refugees attempting to cross into Hungary should be shot. In October 2016 Orbán held a referendum against acceptance of EU refugee quotas, accompanied by a viciously Islamophobic campaign for a “no” vote.
The consequences are toxic. In one poll 71 percent of Jobbik supporters thought that “sooner or later Muslims will be in the majority in Europe and they will force their religion and culture on us”. Some 37 percent of all respondents gave credence to the idea that Jews were behind the “Muslim invasion”, with Jobbik supporters most likely to believe in a Jewish conspiracy.11
While disavowing antisemitism in international forums, both Orbán and Fidesz actively promote antisemitism at home. Jewish financier George Soros is a particular bête noire. In autumn 2015 Orbán accused Soros of manipulating the refugee crisis in order to weaken the nation state.12 Orbán attacked Bill Clinton for his criticism of Hungary and Poland, dismissing him as Soros’s mouthpiece.
Both Fidesz and Jobbik have attempted systematically to rehabilitate the regime of Miklós Horthy, who as Hitler’s Hungarian ally played an instrumental role in exterminating over half a million Hungarian Jews.13 Orbán has himself cultivated the support of leading Holocaust deniers and antisemites. As for Jobbik, antisemitism is built into their ideological worldview. The Hungarian Guard sport insignia reminiscent of the wartime fascist Arrow Cross.14 In 2013 Jobbik called a protest against “a Jewish takeover” of Hungary at the World Jewish Congress in Budapest. Jobbik MP Márton Gyöngyösi called on the Hungarian government to compile a list of Jewish deputies and government officials on the grounds they posed “a national security risk”.15 Krisztina Morvai, Jobbik representative in the European Parliament, claimed that Hungarian Jews aimed to turn the country into an impoverished third-world colony and make “native” Hungarians their “obedient subjects, servants and domestics”.16
Islamophobia, antisemitism and the rise of the right
Antisemitism and Islamophobia go hand in hand. Hungary is an extreme but not an isolated example. State-sponsored Islamophobia has fuelled the growth of far-right and fascist movements across the breadth of the European continent. Along the borders of Eastern Europe, governments have thrown up fences and razor wire to keep out fleeing refugees. Political leaders have issued calls to rally against a Muslim invasion that harbours terrorists and sex molesters in its midst.
Orbán has led the pack but others have followed his lead. Last year Robert Fico, Slovakia’s prime minister and leader of the Slovak Social Democrats, declared, “Islam has no place in Slovakia” announcing he would only accept “Christian” refugees. Party billboards appeared with the slogan, “We protect Slovakia”. Weeks later Slovakia took up the EU Council presidency.17 Czech president Miloš Zeman claimed that even one refugee was too high a risk, branding refugees as an “organised invasion”; Zeman advised refugees to go back to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS.18
The chairman of Poland’s recently elected Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński, claimed refugees brought cholera and dysentery. The week before the EU vote on refugee quotas, thousands marched in cities across Poland, some chanting: “Today refugees, tomorrow terrorists!” and “Poland, free of Islam!”19 At a rally organised by the fascist National-Radical Camp (ONR) in Wrocław, one speaker declared: “We won’t take a single Islamist into Poland because Poland is for Poles”. The rally ended with the burning of an effigy of an orthodox Jew as the crowd chanted: “God, Honour and Fatherland”.20
However, the eastern and southern European states are merely the enforcers of “Fortress Europe”. The foundations of the fortress lie with the major central and western European powers. The fish rots at the head.
In Europe the French political class has been at the fore in fomenting Islamophobia under the guise of secularism. The veil has been banned in public places and the headscarf banned in schools. Last summer a number of French mayors imposed a ban on the burkini (a form of modest women’s swimwear), claiming it was a symbol of Islamic terror. In truth the claims of laïcité (secularism) conceal a racist narrative deeply rooted in French colonial experience, in which Muslim women in particular were perceived as a threat.21
In Britain state-sponsored Islamophobia underpins government counter-extremism strategy including the Prevent duty. A constant diet of anti-Muslim racism fills the front pages of the press amid a rising level of hate-crime and assaults, especially on Muslim women. This poisonous, racist climate has culminated in several murders of elderly Muslims and the killing of MP Jo Cox by a Nazi during the EU referendum campaign.
In Germany far-right street movements against the “Islamification of Europe” have morphed into Alternative für Deutschland. AfD has mobilised tens of thousands on demonstrations, mainly concentrated in the east; refugee accommodation has been subject to a wave of assaults and arson attacks, numbering 1,047 attacks on refugee homes in 2015 and set to rise for 2016.22 Antisemitism has also surfaced within AfD ranks. Björn Höcke, AfD leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, condemned the siting of the Holocaust Memorial in the German capital, to applause from his audience. Hoecke referred to the German mindset as that of a “brutally defeated people”.23
The escalation of state-sponsored Islamophobia across the continent has fuelled a rightward shift. This is most evident in France, where the Front National (FN) gained 6.6 million votes in the 2015 regional elections and polls predict FN leader Marine Le Pen will come second in the first round of the presidential elections in April this year. In Austria the FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer was narrowly defeated in the re-run presidential elections in December 2016 but the party has been climbing in opinion polls, currently standing in lead position at 34 percent. Both these fascist parties have roots in the wartime Nazi period; the FPÖ was founded by Nazis in the 1950s and the FN has roots in the collaborationist Vichy regime and French colonialism in Algeria. Both parties make an outward show of disavowing antisemitism and have even gone as far as expelling some members. Marine Le Pen is noted in the Western press for disavowing her father Jean-Marie, who described the Holocaust as a mere “detail of history”, and her declarations of support for Israel.24 She has made the rounds of the Jewish press, declaring common cause with Israel against “Islamist terror”. But, while Le Pen has formally cut ties with her father, antisemitism remains prevalent within the FN. In April 2016 the chair of the FPÖ, Heinz-Christian Strache, who has a record of antisemitism, visited Israel at the invitation of leading members of Likud and West Bank settlers. He called for a lifting of the Austrian ban on illegal settlement products and a “common front” against Islamists.25
The FN and FPÖ reflect what is sometimes referred to as “Euro-fascism”. This requires some explanation. In the 1920s fascist organisations emerged with the aim of mobilising a “middle class” or “petty bourgeoisie” of shopkeepers, small farmers and state employees ruined by the crisis. This class felt crushed by big capital, yet was fearful of organised workers. Fascism sought to weld this mass of individuals into a violent movement capable of crushing working class organisation and all forms of democratic opposition.26
However, to build a mass base, fascists rely on a deep crisis that fuels the despair and rage in society. Short of such a generalised crisis they can reach a plateau; in order to appeal to those who still believe in parliamentary structures and democracy, one fascist strategy is to hide behind a “respectable” face. Hitler himself pursued a strategy of elections coupled with the deployment of physical force and tempered the Nazis’ public antisemitism when he deemed it necessary. “Euro-fascists” can put their street fighters on ice and disavow those who give Sieg Heil salutes in public or who openly deny the Holocaust; however, unlike parliamentary far-right parties, elections still remain a means, not an end in themselves.
So Gábor Vona, an undoubted Nazi, has recently turned Jobbik towards a “Euro-fascist” model.27 Although Jobbik made large gains in the immediate wake of the 2008 crisis, by 2016 the Hungarian economy had stabilised, albeit at a punishing level. This has made it difficult for Jobbik to grow without broadening its electoral appeal. This shift should not be seen as permanent. It only requires a further deepening of the crisis, a further sudden shock to the system, for existing fascist organisations such as Jobbik to move back onto the streets.
Even in electoral terms, no fascist party can moderate too far without becoming indistinguishable from the conservative right. Even Vona’s turn towards Euro-fascism has created tensions at Jobbik’s base with some loss of members. Therefore all is not as it seems. Both the FN and the FPÖ retain a neo-Nazi hardcore element at their grassroots that itches to slip the leash. Le Pen and Strache will condemn the Holocaust “for the record” while continuing to defend their own Nazi base from charges of antisemitism. So Le Pen declares she is not antisemitic, while calling for bans on the wearing of the Jewish skull cap, and the serving of kosher food in schools. She also suggests French Jews should take care not to bite the hand that feeds them.
As Hugh McDonnell has argued:
the removal of especially extremist figures from official positions does not mean the informal external connections don’t remain—the culture of the far-right is distinctly porous. Purges can only go so far without collapsing the party’s entire infrastructure. In other words, one misses vital aspects of the FN if one restricts examination to its formal members and structures.28
Quite apart from any formal differences over Israel, Euro-fascists and neo-Nazis all look to gain from a pan-European swing towards the fascist right, and seek vindication in every fascist and far-right success. There is a qualitative difference between these fascist organisations and far-right populists such as UKIP, Fidesz, the Law and Justice Party or Geert Wilders’s “Party for Freedom” in the Netherlands. However right wing and racist, these are parliamentary parties seeking to win power through elections. Nonetheless, their growth shifts the political spectrum to the right, creating space for the growth of fascist formations, which the latter would find difficult in isolation.29 Furthermore, these forces are not static—fascist parties can build a broader base from splits and reconfigurations on the right.
The rise of far-right and fascist parties in Europe are not distinct “national” phenomena; they are rooted in a common European crisis. Their rise cannot be explained without reference to austerity imposed from Brussels or the state sponsored Islamophobia that accompanies Fortress Europe. Their growth is fuelled by a common anti-migrant rhetoric emanating from mainstream political leaders and the entire European press; caveats of tolerance do nothing to restrain the tide.
It is in this context too that we must examine the rise of antisemitism. It is no coincidence that antisemitism takes hold where the crisis is deepest. It is therefore dangerous to assume that its re-emergence is confined to a particular geopolitical context.
For fascists, the notion of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy is important. It serves as an explanation for systemic crisis, not simply to their wider support base but to the neo-Nazi hard core. It provides a rationale for rejecting democracy (which is portrayed as a charade controlled by Jews) and underpins justification for the use of force and extreme violence in order to overcome the hidden power of their enemies. Thus the figure of “the Jew” emerges as the “hidden hand” behind every woe: the financial crisis, humiliation of the nation state, the Roma “virus”, and refugee “invaders”.
It is possible to argue that fascism does not need antisemitism. In the abstract this may well be true. Fascism is the organised mobilisation of particular class forces in acts of mass force. In theory this does not require antisemitic ideology per se.30 However, in the concrete it is difficult to see what other ideological expression could serve as a vehicle for attacking “international finance” and “global power structures”. As Alex Callinicos argues, fascism requires a pseudo-revolutionary language; fascists need to project themselves as anti-systemic, requiring what Daniel Guérin calls a “demagogic anticapitalism”.31 In this the fascist does not require the immediate presence of Jews. The Jewish population of Germany before the Holocaust was less than 0.75 percent.
Today, the dominant form of European and Western racism, Islamophobia, shares with antisemitism the notion of an alien community acting both as an external and internal threat and hostile to Western civilisation and national identity. The “Islamification of Europe” may be a preposterous notion but hardly more so than its antisemitic antecedents. It should not surprise us therefore that antisemitism has re-emerged. A Pew Research poll found that as anti-Muslim racism rose, so did antisemitism, and among the same people.32 Thus two forms of reactionary ideology are beginning to combine, posing concrete challenges for the left.
The United States
Left unchallenged, state-sponsored Islamophobia can only develop in a relentlessly rightward direction. Ever more authoritarian legislation is accompanied by increasing demonisation of Muslims, which drives up every form of reactionary prejudice.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States. At the time of writing, massive protests have erupted against Trump’s executive order banning refugees from Muslim countries from entering the country. Trump epitomises the toxic combination of Islamophobia with every other form of racism and prejudice.
This now includes the poison drip of antisemitism. During the Republican Party primaries a study by the Anti-Defamation League identified 2.6 million antisemitic tweets including some that Trump retweeted.33 This was not simply a spontaneous expression of anti-Jewish prejudice from a far-right element of Trump’s support base. The campaign itself took a resolutely hard-line turn in August 2016 with the appointment of Steve Bannon, executive chair of Breitbart News, the best known web platform of the “alt-right”, as campaign manager. Bannon is now Trump’s chief strategist in the White House.
Trump’s final campaign ad featured a speech with carefully placed shots of Jewish financiers (George Soros, Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve Board, and Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs) against references to “those who control the levers of power in Washington”, “global special interests” and persons who fill “the pockets of a handful of large corporations”. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were described as “partners” of “these people”.34
The alt-right acts as an umbrella for far-right racist populists, ultra-right pro-settler Zionists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis. While these different currents should not be conflated, they feed one another. Breitbart, for example, is not itself a Nazi publication and includes a number of Jewish columnists. However, the latter detest “renegade Jews” (ie those who support the Democratic Party, fail to unequivocally support the settlers, or are seen as part of the “liberal elite”). This enables them to share common ground with outright antisemites as long as they support Israel.
The consequences of the 2008 crash and the disastrous failures in Iraq compounded a deep crisis across the US establishment. Decades of wage repression and plant closures have undermined the Democratic support base among sections of the American working class, providing an opening for Trump, with the far-right in his slipstream. Trump used his campaign to vent populist rage against a “financial elite”, or what Bannon calls “crony capitalism”. In this context antisemitism has now gained a foothold within the American mainstream.
The limits of reaction, the potential for resistance
While we must focus on the growth of the right, there’s a danger that we can leave the impression of a tide of reaction sweeping all before it. This is very far from the case. Take the case of Jobbik; it is important to note that their support in the polls has declined from 20 percent to 14 percent. The 40 percent of eligible voters who consistently fail to vote reflect low levels of antisemitism. While there is a high level of antisemitism in the population as a whole—20 percent of Hungarians believe in an international Jewish conspiracy—we should not lose sight of the fact that 80 percent do not believe it. In addition, there have been important protests against antisemitism and the fascists.35 So we see a polarised picture (reflected on a European scale) with “extreme antisemitism” at its highest among Jobbik voters, at 51 percent.36
The level of mass opposition in denying fascists public space is crucial in limiting their influence. Greece and Hungary have both experienced a deep economic crisis, hitting the middle class and rural populations particularly hard. They also both share a nationalist, antisemitic tradition.
Golden Dawn remains a threat, but it has not been able to break through. This is despite Greece facing a deeper economic crisis than Hungary and having police and military structures with roots in the military junta of 1967-74 and the Nazi collaborators of the Greek civil war. The crucial factor is the role of the left and Keerfa, the anti-fascist united front that has confronted Golden Dawn on the streets and mobilised mass anti-fascist demonstrations. Keerfa lawyers are also at the forefront of a major public trial of Golden Dawn’s leadership. In addition, the Greek workers’ movement has seen an unprecedented level of struggle despite Syriza’s capitulation to the EU austerity programme, and the left retains real strength.
Hungary, however, in common with the rest of the former Soviet bloc, still bears the legacy of Stalinism and the absence of a strong, genuine left. This creates real difficulties in opposing the right. Even so, a wave of mass protests saw a decline in Jobbik’s support in early 2016 as teachers took strike action and mounted nationwide protests against Orbán’s education reforms. These acted as a lightning rod for wider discontent with workers, parents and school students joining the demonstrations. Some 76 percent of the population supported the teachers as the government’s ratings fell.37
Orbán also failed to achieve the required 50 percent turnout for a mandatory result in the October referendum over EU refugee quotas. It was terrible that Orbán secured 98 percent of the vote; nonetheless the low turnout indicates the limits of anti-migrant racism.
A similar picture is true across Europe, including in Britain. This is not to understate the danger from the far-right. Rather it is to assert that even when the far-right and fascists make advances or levels of racism are high, the potential to build opposition is real. The question is whether the subjective political forces exist in order to mobilise it.
The attack on the left: the “new antisemitism” 1967-2000
While antisemitism is growing on the far-right in Europe and the US, the anti-imperialist left has been subjected to a deluge of accusations of antisemitism for its opposition to the State of Israel that has far outweighed criticism of antisemitism on the right. These accusations are not new; however, they have acquired new force.
The narrative of a “new antisemitism” has its origins in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. Its core thesis was that opposition to the State of Israel, emanating from the anti-imperialist left, the Palestinian liberation movement and the Arab nationalist regimes, constituted a new form of antisemitism.
In one of the first works, The New Antisemitism, the authors, Arnold Forster and Benjamin Epstein, made their case in absolute terms: “In its assault on Israel’s right to exist, the radical left engages in what is perhaps the ultimate antisemitism”.38 Forster and Epstein, both Anti-Defamation League leaders, were reacting to the radicalisation of the late 1960s and what they saw as growing political isolation of Israel. The anti-Vietnam War movement, the events of May 1968 in France, the rise of the Black Power movement and anti-colonial struggles in Africa transformed the political attitudes of a generation.
Abba Eban, a key figure behind the 1948 UN partition agreement, and Israeli foreign minister, laid out the case in typically clear terms:
Recently we have witnessed the rise of the new left, which identifies Israel with the establishment… Let there be no mistake: the new left is the author and the progenitor of the new antisemitism. One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all. Anti-Zionism is merely the new antisemitism. The old classic antisemitism declared that equal rights belong to all individuals within the society, except the Jews. The new antisemitism says that the right to establish and maintain an independent national sovereign state is the prerogative of all nations, so long as they happen not to be Jewish. And when this right is exercised not by the Maldive Islands, not by the state of Gabon, not by Barbados…but by the oldest and most authentic of all nationhoods, then this is said to be exclusivism, particularism, and a flight of the Jewish people from its universal mission.39
These arguments have run like a thread through the intervening decades. The attack by Eban on the anti-imperialist left four decades ago now has its echo in the attack on Corbyn, marked out for his own leading role in the anti-war movement.
In the 1977 elections in Israel Menachem Begin broke three decades of Labour Zionist government, leading the right wing Likud to victory. This marked a further breach in left support. Begin had been leader of the Irgun terror gangs that massacred 250 civilians at the village of Deir Yassin in 1948. He embarked on a major expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, launching the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. This and Israeli complicity in the massacre of refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps led Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and a large number of Labour MPs to resign from Labour Friends of Israel (although Benn never abandoned support for a “two-state” solution). By the early 1980s the post-war support for Israel was breaking down.
In 1984 Robert Wistrich, a long-standing exponent of the notion of a “new antisemitism”, gave a lecture at the home of Chaim Herzog, president of Israel. Wistrich rehearsed the themes articulated by Eban a decade before. He claimed campaigns against the Jewish state could be “compared to the threat posed to Jews by Nazism in the period of its upsurge”. Wistrich was particularly concerned at the number of young Jews who were becoming critical of Israel. Like Eban, he argued that the damage to Israel’s image had its origins in the New Left, making specific reference to the radical left in Britain (especially “Trotskyists”)40: “Anti-Zionism has in the past 15 to 20 years, gradually become an integral part of the cultural code of many Leftist and some liberal circles—an enemy on a par with imperialism, racism and militarism—and invariably identified with these evils”.41 Whilst Wistrich conceded it would be wrong to “stick the label of antisemitism on all forms of anti-Zionism”, he insisted on the “basic continuity between classical antisemitism and contemporary anti-Zionism”.
The pro-Zionist position came under further pressure with the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 when Palestinian youth took to the streets to be met with the deliberate “broken bones” policy of the Israeli forces. Almost 30,000 children required medical treatment; over 1,000 Palestinians were killed. The end of the Intifada and the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords saw a degree of consensus emerge around the question of a “two state solution”. This was shattered by the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel’s defeat at the hands of Hizbollah and withdrawal from Lebanon in 2006, and the rise of Hamas.
2000 to the present: the “new antisemitism” reforged
However, the Second Intifada was set against 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “new antisemitism” narrative now took on altogether different proportions. From 2000 onwards its proponents identified “radical Islam” as an existential threat not only to the State of Israel but to Western liberal values on a global scale. For the pro-imperialist camp, Israel was now on the front line.
The contemporary roots of Islamophobia lie in the period following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the rising influence of Islamist movements.42 In their wake, anti-Muslim prejudice became a dominant trope. As the late Edward Said noted, “malicious generalisations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West; what is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture as a whole cannot now be said in mainstream discussion about Africans, Jews, other Orientals, or Asians”.43
In 1986 the orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis published Semites and Antisemites, which in large part reworked the narratives of the 1970s but in which Lewis also addressed the “Islamisation” of antisemitism.44 Lewis is an acclaimed scholar on Islam and the Middle East; he is a leading neoconservative, a confidant of several Israeli prime ministers including Ariel Sharon, and acted as adviser to George W Bush after 9/11. His writing has set a template for commentary that now fills the pages of Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic and innumerable other newspapers and journals. It is not incidental that Said devoted considerable space to systematically demolishing Lewis’s “Orientalist” stereotyping of Muslims and their religious, political and social life.
Lewis first raised the prospect of a “resurgent Islam” in 1976, at the onset of civil war in Lebanon. In an essay entitled “The Return of Islam”, Lewis concluded:
The basic question is this: Is a resurgent Islam prepared to tolerate a non-Islamic enclave, whether Jewish in Israel or Christian in Lebanon, in the heart of the Islamic world?… Islam from its inception is a religion of power, and in the Muslim worldview it is right and proper that power should be wielded by Muslims and Muslims alone… That Muslims should rule over non-Muslims is right and normal. That non-Muslims should rule over Muslims is an offence against the laws of God and nature.45
By 1990 Lewis was writing of “Islamic fundamentalism” as a war against secularism and modernity. There was something in Islamic religious culture, he wrote, that inspired “an explosive mixture of hate and rage”. Lewis coined a phrase later picked up by Samuel Huntington: “This is no less than a clash of civilisations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both”.46 As Edward Said observes, “All of Lewis’s emphases…are to portray the whole of Islam as basically outside the known, familiar, acceptable world that ‘we’ inhabit, and in addition that contemporary Islam has inherited European antisemitism for use in an alleged war against modernity”.47
By 2002 Lewis was advocating full-blown war. In an article for The Wall Street Journal, “Time for Toppling”, Lewis wrote that “the dictatorships that rule much of the Middle East today will not, indeed cannot, make peace, because they need conflict to justify their tyrannical oppression of their own people and to deflect their peoples’ anger against an external enemy…real peace will come only with their defeat”.48
Lewis encapsulates the direction of travel of the “new antisemitism” narrative. Eight days after 9/11 he addressed the US Defence Policy Board, headed by Richard Perle, to argue for a military takeover of Iraq in order to avert the threat of further terrorism.49
It is difficult to convey the sheer flood of books, journal articles, newspaper and online commentary on “the new antisemitism” since 2003. The originators span Cold War ideologues, historians, pro-war liberals, Labour MPs, French “nouveaux philosophes”, Zionists, prominent figures in the Jewish community, feminists and innumerable commentators and columnists ranging from raving right wingers such as Melanie Phillips to liberals such as Jonathan Freedland. It is only possible here to indicate some of the more “articulate” sources. There is a mass of “polemical” writing, bordering on hysteria, which depicts an unholy alliance of the “extreme left” and Islamic fundamentalists united around a common platform of antisemitism and “anti-Americanism”. Examples include work by best-selling feminist Phyllis Chesler and former head of the Anti Defamation League Abe Foxman.50 I will confine myself to some examples that encapsulate the political trajectory.
One of the most influential writers on the theme is French philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff, who has produced a range of work, most notably La Nouvelle Judeophobie in 2002, translated into English as Rising from the Muck: The New Antisemitism in Europe.51 Taguieff begins with the Israel-Palestine conflict, arguing that any solution first requires the “de-Islamisation” of the Palestinian national movement. He argues that Islamism is a global peril in which the Palestinians have become the standard-bearers for the enemies of democracy and the west.52 However, the crux of Taguieff’s narrative is when he brings it “home”:
We note a strange and disturbing blindness of political circles (particularly on the left) likewise of the French media, towards the new expressions of anti-Jewish hatred, especially when these are bound up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are partly attributable to certain populations from Maghrebian and African immigrant background—in short, when they appear to be the act of “youth from the banlieues”, a good part of whom remain impervious to the norms of republican integration.53
Taguieff’s trajectory is an exemplar of a common narrative. He moves from the Israel-Palestine conflict and Hamas suicide-bombers to a worldwide Islamist threat; from there it is a short step to Muslim youth on the outskirts of French cities. The narrative of the “new antisemitism” has been weaponised by the “war on terror”. It is now one of the cornerstones of a wider narrative deployed by the tribunes of military intervention abroad and “counter-extremism” strategies at home.
Islamophobia has rushed through the gates. One sometimes has to catch one’s breath at the depth to which this has sunk. Renowned historian Walter Laqueur fearfully compares declining “native” populations in Germany, Italy and Spain to a population explosion in the Maghreb, Egypt, Turkey and Iran. Laqueur concludes that within a few decades Jewish communities in European cities “will exist in a largely or even predominantly Muslim milieu”.54
Laqueur argues that anti-capitalism, anti-globalisation and “anti-Americanism” are the key ideological traits uniting the left and “radical Islam”, trumping other differences. He refers to the biggest international demonstrations in history as just “anti-American” and “anti-West” protests made up of the far-left and radical Islamists, replete with antisemitic slogans.
The purveyors of the “new antisemitism” narrative attempt a distinction between “radical Islam” and the majority of Muslims. The problem is this keeps breaking down. So Yehuda Bauer, Israeli historian and authority on the Holocaust, points to the 20 million Muslim immigrants in Europe, generously conceding that they “are not radical Islamists—yet”. Bauer cites Lewis’s assertion that Muslim civilisation failed to keep pace with the West: “The result is that today most Muslims live in abject poverty and have no chance to rise from vegetating in the gutters.” Thus “turning to a radical religious belief is their only way of gaining some self-esteem and feeling of identity”.55 For Bauer, the “new antisemitism” is a genocidal threat to “universalist civilisation” embodied in Western democracy: “We are faced with a genocidal threat to the Jewish people, and then to others… Radical Islam does have a chance, and world civilisation must defend itself…the threat is genocidal… We must not repeat past mistakes”.56
In Britain leading proponents of military intervention on the Blairite wing of the Labour Party have also seized upon the narrative. Thus Denis MacShane, in Globalising Hatred: The New Antisemitism, locates antisemitism as central to promoting world terror:
We have seen life-threatening antisemitism return with a vengeance. Thousands have been killed across the globe as men, women, even children, and organisations powered by an ideology to which antisemitism is central and essential have decided to unleash unprecedented assaults on democracy. In Bali and Istanbul, in Egypt and Madrid, in New York and London, people driven by antisemitic hate along with other hates have killed, killed and killed again in the name of a cause that hates Jews.57
As former minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and British delegate to the Council for Europe, MacShane is a long-standing advocate of Western military intervention.
MacShane was previously chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism. Prior to his imprisonment for fraudulent expenses claims in 2013 he appeared alongside the current chair, John Mann, as a witness in a case brought against the University and College Union (UCU) for its policy of boycotting links with Israeli universities. The judge dismissed the case against the UCU in a judgement that was highly critical of both Mann and MacShane.58
MacShane and Mann (both non-Jews) represent the widening of the “new antisemitism” narrative into the Labour mainstream. Mann went on to play a central role in the manufactured attack on Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left. In Corbyn they faced a Labour leader who was a principled socialist, a leading figure of the anti-war movement and supporter of Palestinian rights. For the Labour right, the “new antisemitism” narrative was an ideal weapon in the struggle against him.
“New antisemitism” and its consequences
The “new antisemitism” narrative has potentially severe political consequences. In France representatives of CRIF (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France), have played down the threat from the FN, presenting left anti-Zionism and Muslim youth as the greater threat.59 The French government has even banned pro-Palestinian protests. In Britain the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, and current Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, joined the onslaught on Corbyn and the left.60
Furthermore, there has been an attempt to institutionalise definitions of antisemitism that would delegitimise opposition to Israel or support for the Palestinians. In December 2016 Theresa May adopted what had been only a “working definition of antisemitism” by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)61 as guidance for the Crown Prosecution Service. The definition’s criteria for identifying antisemitism include: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.
The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism chaired by John Mann declined to pursue formal adoption of this definition in February 2015, recognising that it had become “a topic of controversy rather than consensus”.62 The definition had also been considered too problematic for the European Union Monitoring Committee (EUMC) and its successor the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) to be adopted formally. May’s breakthrough came courtesy of Corbyn’s Labour opponents on the Home Affairs Select Committee led by Chuka Umunna, who recommended that the definition be used to provide a legislative basis for identifying antisemitism in October 2016. Two mild guarantees on free expression proposed by the Select Committee were dismissed as unnecessary by May.63
Although May might have taken advantage of Corbyn’s opponents’ opportunism, Britain’s adoption of the IHRA “working definition” reflects a wider ideological and political agenda on the part of the main European powers. It is important, however, to make some points about their content.
There is a longstanding debate in academic and political literature over the nature of the State of Israel. There is a position, advanced by Jews and by opponents of antisemitism, that Israel is a colonial-settler state, and thus structurally “racist”.64 This is, of course, open to debate but to define such a position as “antisemitic” is nothing short of a calculated attack on free speech and democratic expression.
The second claim is that “double standards” are applied to Israel that are not applied to other states. This is utterly cynical and ignores the fact that Israel is founded on the dispossession of the Palestians. There is a long tradition on the left of taking up causes at the fulcrum of international struggles: Spain, French Algeria, Chile, apartheid South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and Vietnam, to list a few. In fact, far from a “double standard” being applied, support for the Palestinian struggle lies in a long tradition of anti-colonial struggles. It is the pro-Zionists who demand Israel is treated as an exception.
However, the consequence of this attempt to delegitimise debate or protest can only be to sow division in the face of the real threat from the right. Despite declarations of opposition to Islamophobia and bigotry, the proponents of the “new antisemitism” narrative cast Muslims, the left and the most reactionary racists in the same camp. This can only sow disunity and help to clear a path down which fascists and racists may tread.
Finally, the “new antisemitism” narrative acts as ideological support for the very forces of imperialism and war that create the terrain upon which fascism can grow. We therefore face a challenge of a high order.
Antisemitism as a problem for anti-racists and the left
If we put aside the charge that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, what of allegations that real antisemitic tropes and narratives are prevalent in the Middle East, within the Muslim community or among pro-Palestinian and left wing activists?
Gilbert Achcar argues that it is undeniable that “anti-Jewish, antisemitic and Holocaust-denying expressions” emanate from within sections of the Palestinian movement. It is also true that antisemitism, or any form of racism, can arise across society as a whole. That said, to the extent it does exist, Achcar argues that Muslim antisemitism cannot be compared to the antisemitism now re-emerging in Europe or the United States, let alone that of the Nazi era.65
First, modern antisemitism in the Middle East is not an ancestral hatred. It is rooted in a response to an exclusionary Zionist project and Western colonial rule. As the vehemently pro-Zionist historian Yehoshafat Harkabi insists, “It should be stated with the utmost emphasis that Arab antisemitism is not the cause of the conflict but one of its results; it is not the reason for the hostile Arab attitude toward Israel and the Jews, but a means of deepening, justifying and institutionalising that hostility”.66
Many Zionist historians acknowledge that anti-Jewish prejudice in the Muslim world bore no comparison to that of Christian Europe, the pogroms, or the Nazi genocide. Even Bernard Lewis concedes that antisemitism was essentially a European import that took hold as a consequence of the conflict over Zionist settlement.67
Second, as Gilbert Achcar describes in Arabs and the Holocaust, different political traditions responded in different ways to the Second World War.68 Some opposed alignment with rival imperialisms; some saw Germany as a potential “friend” against British or French imperialism; some took a neutral position. The same divisions can be seen in anti-colonial movements generally, as in the case of Subhas Chandra Bose, former president of the Indian National Congress, and the Irish nationalist movement.
Zionists devote a vast amount of space to the role of Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921. According to historian Peter Novick, the article on the Mufti in the Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, “is more than twice as long as the articles on Goebbels and Göring, longer than the articles on Himmler and Heydrich combined, longer than the article on Eichmann”.69 Ironically, Al-Husseini owed his appointment to Herbert Samuel, British High Commissioner for Palestine, an architect of the Balfour Declaration and a fervent Zionist. Al-Husseini was indeed an appalling, reactionary antisemite. He was no radical when it came to the Palestinian struggle either, exerting a conservative influence on the Arab Revolt of 1936-9 to bring it to a close. Zvi Elpeleg, former military governor in Gaza, noted: “The memory of Haj Amin disappeared from the Palestinian public consciousness almost without trace. No days of mourning were set aside… No memorials were built…no books written extolling his deeds”.70
Western imperialism’s foremost allies promote some of the worst antisemitism in the Arab world. It is also used by states such as Iran who have cynically used the Palestinian struggle to serve their own regional aims. The Gulf States, in particular Saudi Arabia, rank high on this list. Here antisemitism acts as a substitute for a genuine, universal politics of liberation that these regimes could not countenance.
Antisemitic narratives do strike a chord in the Arab world. However, this is rooted in Israel’s role as a watchdog for imperialism in the Middle East and the oppression of the Palestinians. In a famous essay Brian Klug argues: “In the Arab and Muslim world today…the political conflict is what comes first…while antisemitism is a secondary formation, a by-product of aspirations and grievances that have nothing to do with a priori prejudice against Jews”.71 As Achcar notes, the Arab world views the state that claims to represent the victims of the Shoah “from the standpoint of the victims of the Nakba”.72 If the Holocaust “justifies” the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, it will seem logical to some to see Holocaust denial as refuting a fundamental premise of the Zionist case. This is only made worse when Zionists deny the suffering of the Palestinians or even their existence.
Nonetheless, there is a difference between outright antisemites and Holocaust deniers such as former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who held a conference in Tehran in 2006 for Holocaust deniers, and those who adopt confused antisemitic positions in response to the Middle East conflict and their experience of anti-Muslim racism. The outright antisemites should be given no quarter. However, for many who adopt antisemitic tropes a different approach is required, not least because opposition to antisemitism among Muslim activists and the Muslim population as a whole is evident for any who care to look. This doesn’t mean antisemitism should ever be tolerated. Yet in challenging confused attitudes, the emphasis should be based, where possible, on highlighting how a struggle against the common foe requires dispensing with prejudice and division.
Here, for example, the role of the Anti Nazi League and Unite Against Fascism in building unity against racism, fascism and Holocaust denial has been critical to the demise of successive Nazi groups such as the National Front, the British National Party and the English Defence League. Holocaust survivors such as Leon Greenman and Esther Brunstein (who passed away this January) and veterans of the anti-fascist protests at Cable Street in 1936 have been central in helping to mobilise mass opposition, complemented by educational visits to Auschwitz. Lord Alf Dubs, himself a Kindertransport refugee, has spoken on Stand Up to Racism platforms in support of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East.
Anti-Muslim racism compounds the difficulty. France gives us a negative example to contrast with that of Britain. France has a history of anti-Muslim racism rooted in its colonisation of the Maghreb, the fascist Action Française in the 1920s and 1930s, the Vichy regime and the French-Algerian war. In 1961, 100 to 300 Algerians were killed on a demonstration in Paris in support of Algerian independence on the orders of the chief of police, Maurice Papon. Papon was subsequently convicted for his role in deporting French Jews to the death camps.
Paul Silverstein argues that the “war on terror” in France began in the mid-1990s and has shaped the experience of French Muslim youth:
When Franco-Maghrebis…witness the events of 9/11, the American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the ongoing violence in Israel-Palestine, they increasingly witness a reflection of the struggles they are undergoing in their daily lives…young French Muslims make the implicit analogy between the American army, the Israeli IDF and the French riot police. They reinterpret, in other words, their battles with French forces of law and order as an intifada of their own, as a resistance to the forces of imperialism.
This reaction to the French state, Silverstein argues, can thus take on the form of “a generalised anti-Zionism and an occasional antisemitism”.73
It is crucial that the left and anti-racist activists, Muslim and non-Muslim, vigorously counter any expression of antisemitism or Holocaust denial. However, attacking support for the Palestinian struggle as antisemitic, portraying Muslims as fascists, or failing to challenge bans on the headscarf and the veil can only reinforce divisions.
Finally, I wish to address some of the sensitive areas of debate. There is a common charge that the use of the term “Zionist” is merely a surrogate for “Jew” and that criticism of Israel frequently references Jews per se, rather than Israelis or the Israeli government. It is true that any conflation between Jews and Israelis is completely false (not least for an anti-Zionist Jew like myself). However, the advocates for Israel want this both ways. At every opportunity they insist Zionism defines what it is to be Jewish, that Israel represents the entirety of world Jewry, that opposition to Zionism is antisemitism. To express horror when some take them at their word smacks of hypocrisy.
There is also the issue of making comparisons between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the Nazis. Let us again place this in context. Western governments indiscriminately use comparisons with Hitler whenever it suits them. Every dictator the West chooses to depose becomes a “new Hitler”. This is particularly true of Arab or Muslim leaders. “No More Hitlers!” was the screaming headline of the pro-Labour Daily Herald in reference to the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser at the outbreak of the 1956 Suez crisis.74 In 1953 the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, was deposed in a US and British sponsored coup. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal compared Mossadegh to Hitler.75 Israel’s spokespersons have not hesitated to liken Yasser Arafat and Hamas leaders to Hitler and to compare the Palestinian resistance, secular and Islamist, to the Nazis.76
We must also distinguish here between racism of the oppressed and racism of the oppressor. Anti-Arab racism in Israel is far more dominant than anti-Jewish hatred is among Palestinians. Some 48 percent of Israeli Jews believe Arabs should be “transferred” out of Israel and only 30 percent of Israelis oppose settlement building. In a Pew Research survey this year almost 40 percent of Israeli Arabs had suffered at least one form of discrimination in the past year. While 80 percent of Israeli Arabs believe Israel is a racist society only 15 percent of Israeli Jews do so.77
However, all that said, comparisons between the Nazis and Israel are badly mistaken. Although the intention is to stigmatise Israel for its oppression of the Palestinians and to shame those who perpetuate it, this is grossly misplaced. Far from serving to highlight injustices inflicted upon Palestinians, such comparisons have the reverse effect. Similarly, to focus on the right wing Zionists who collaborated with the Nazis and conflate this wing of Zionism as representative of Zionism as a whole during the Nazi era also paints a false picture. There was a tradition within Zionism that fought the fascists and opposed collaboration.
Another argument is that Zionists “privilege” the Holocaust over other genocides. Here too some care is required. It is true that Zionists often elevate the Holocaust to a special status to deflect criticism of Israel. Here the main problem lies with the intention. It does not necessarily follow that the Holocaust should be regarded as one atrocity among many. It is in my view a mistaken approach to argue that the Holocaust is “no worse” than other atrocities. First, the scale of genocide as a proportion of European Jewry far exceeds the losses of any community either during the Second World War or since, with the partial exception of the Roma. Secondly, this was a particularly modern genocide. It now confronts our generation, in Rosa Luxemburg’s famous phrase, as a choice between “socialism or barbarism”.
However, the fundamental fault is to trump one oppression with another. This is precisely the problem with the Zionist case. Benny Morris, one of Israel’s “new historians”, documents the atrocities that led to the exodus of Palestinians; he nonetheless argues that, confronted with a choice between genocide and ethnic cleansing, he would choose the latter.78
On the other side of the spectrum, the far-right will try to avoid outright denial but claim that Jews were just one more set of victims of the Nazis along with others. The intention here is to erase the genocidal and ideological character of “The Final Solution”. Trump’s statement on Holocaust Memorial Day did not mention Jews either, which the White House defended in similar terms to that of the far-right.79
War death statistics are a grim exercise but they nonetheless illustrate the ideological character of the Nazi genocide. Poland, a nation that suffered terribly under Nazi occupation, lost 9 percent of its non-Jewish population, totalling 3 million non-Jews. However, some 92 percent of Polish Jewry, also totalling 3 million, perished in the Final Solution. The same pattern is repeated across Europe.80
There is, I believe, a genuine argument that can move from the Holocaust to the question of Palestine without invoking misplaced comparisons and formulations. The point is not to weigh one atrocity against another or to feel compelled to outdo others in the use of the term “genocide”. Distinctions between ethnic cleansing, bombing civilian populations in war, and ethnic or racial genocide are important, not so as to place victims on a league table but to understand the specific character of a world system that encompasses all these horrors. There is an important sense in which the Holocaust was unique in terms of scale, its industrial intensity and—above all—as an example of the ultimate obscenity of racist ideology in the hands of a fascist movement. Far from diminishing subsequent or previous atrocities, the Holocaust holds for us a universal lesson on the nature of a system.
Finally, the use of demonising terminology should have no place in the argument. Shami Chakrabarti is correct to condemn the use of the term “Zio” for example. This is the ubiquitous term of fascists such as David Duke, for whom it is no more than a stand-in for “Yids”. It is never used by Jews to describe themselves and should not be used by anti-Zionists. There are also problems with talking in terms of a “Zionist lobby”, though it is very commonly used without any antisemitic intent. It implies—wrongly—that Zionist organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and others control and determine media coverage of Israel or shape US foreign policy. However, for the Western media and the US government, Israel is an indispensable strategic asset. To blame the likes of AIPAC for Western support for Israel is to get the argument the wrong way round. The problem is this terminology can open the door to conspiracy theories of a world dominated by a religious or ethnic group that lets the capitalist system itself off the hook.81
How the debate is framed is important as there are allies to be won. The antisemitism of the Trump campaign and the appointment of Bannon have opened up an important fracture between those who are not prepared to concede to antisemitism from the right, and those prepared to enter into a pact with the devil in support of the State of Israel. Divisions have even opened up within the hard-line Zionist camp, for example, between AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League, whose chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt attacked the appointment of Bannon as “a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’—a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed antisemites and racists”.82
This is particularly significant among young Jews. Jewish historian Marjorie Feld observes: “If students don’t hear from the Jewish right on Trump, and soon, there may be a price to pay in terms of their own longevity”.83 Progressive Jewish organisations such as J-Street, If Not Now, the Jewish National Democratic Council and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism all denounced Bannon’s appointment.84 This fallout is also having an impact here in the UK and elsewhere. Almost 200 young Jews, including members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jewish youth groups, the Jewish Labour Movement and Jewish society presidents, signed a letter condemning the congratulations sent to Trump by Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies, as “beneath contempt” and “laughable”.85
Underlying a socialist approach lies the fundamental political claim that Zionism is not the “natural” political home for world Jewry. Contrary to all its own pretences, Israel provides neither a defence against antisemitism nor a barrier to fascism. The only sanctuary from antisemitism lies in uniting Jew, Muslim, black and white, LGBT+ people and all the oppressed against the forces of racism and fascism. Our own divisions and differences, including over the question of Israel, cannot be allowed to stand in the way of that task.
We are witnessing the return of old monsters. It is just over 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the spring of 1944, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were exterminated in its gas chambers and death-pits in eight weeks; one in three victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau were Hungarian Jews. Today Hungary is home to Europe’s largest neo-Nazi party, modelled on the Hungarian fascists of the wartime era. The governing party, Fidesz, vies with the Nazis of Jobbik in rehabilitating Hitler’s wartime allies and promoting revanchism and historical revisionism.
However, Hungary is but the most extreme example of a continent-wide current; this is a product of despair and anger, borne on a foul tide of Islamophobia. Modern antisemitism was, from its inception, rooted in economic crisis, militarism and racism. It acts to embrace every vicissitude of the capitalist crisis, and serves to mobilise the fascist menace.
The left faces a challenge we must rise to. For the neo-Nazis, Euro-fascists and far-right, antisemitism and Islamophobia are mutually reinforcing. In their worldview Western civilisation is threatened; behind every Muslim lurks the threat of terror. Meanwhile, they see a hostile “international Jewry” wielding their global economic power, bringing ruin upon nations, manipulating a “liberal elite” to defend their own “global interests”.
In the face of this, the narrative of the “new antisemitism” poisons the terrain upon which we need to build unity; it reinforces vile and reactionary prejudices against Muslims, feeding an environment in which the far-right and fascists can grow. We must therefore contest this narrative unrelentingly—yet not lose sight of the primary foe.
We cannot afford to be complacent. Ultimately, the fascist does not care whether a Jew is a Zionist or an anti-Zionist. The Nazis certainly did not. Nor do they care whether a Muslim is conservative or secular. Unity is not simply a moral imperative; it is a political question. France has the biggest Muslim population and the biggest Jewish population in Western Europe. To defeat the threat from the Front National, an anti-fascist movement will need to unite Muslims and Jews alongside the left and the workers’ movement.
As the worldwide protests earlier this year against Trump’s Muslim ban demonstrate, we should not overestimate their strength nor underestimate ours. Fascism is not in power, and nowhere does it command majority support. The potential to mobilise popular opposition to racism and racist violence exists on a mass scale.
The model of united front opposition needs to be generalised. Fascists cannot be constrained or “exposed” by reasoned argument or logic. Fascism uses ideological positions to mobilise physical force, not to engage in rational debate; antisemitism does not address the realm of logic but speaks to the despair and rage at the ruin brought by blind, incomprehensible forces. It is an ideology that explains nothing and explains everything.
However, uniting with those you agree with is a relatively easy proposition. The difficulty comes in uniting forces who may be divided on questions of principle. Nonetheless, that is the task we confront. The stakes are high but there is every reason to act with confidence. Opposition to racism and fascism exists even where these forces are strongest. Our political task is to mobilise that opposition.
1 The term “antisemitism” first gained currency with publication of the antisemitic pamphlet: Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum: Vom nicht confessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet (The Victory of the Jewish Spirit over the Germanic Spirit: Observed from a non-religious perspective) by Wilhelm Marr in 1879. For a classic Marxist analysis of the Jewish Question, see Leon, 1970, and also Rose, 2004. See Callinicos, 1995, for a discussion of modernity and racism.
2 See Sachar, 2005, pp207-221, on pogroms and Jewish emigration from Europe.
3 See Trotsky, 1971. For an interrogation of Holocaust literature and a Marxist analysis of fascism and the Holocaust, see Callinicos, 2001.
5 BBC News, 2017.
6 Hüttl, 2015; Frum, 2015.
7 Thorpe, 2012.
8 Gauriat, 2014.
9 Kwiatkowska, 2014, p266.
10 Kroet, 2016.
11 Hungarian Spectrum, 2015.
12 Hungary Today, 2016.
13 Karsai, 2014, p98. It should be noted that antisemitism in Eastern Europe has a legacy in the Stalinist period when it was a feature of the post-war Stalinist regimes.
14 Jordan, 2010.
15 Heneghan and Szakacs, 2013; Dunai, 2012; ALB, 2012.
16 Kovács, 2013, p20.
17 Chadwick, 2016; Cunningham, 2016.
18 Muller, 2016.
19 Bachman, 2016.
20 Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 2015.
21 See Scott, 2007, pp45-54.
22 Gopalakrishnan, 2016.
23 BBC News, 2017.
24 Jean-Marie Le Pen also boasted that he served during the 1956 Suez crisis in “support” of Israel.
25 A cautionary note: Zionists as a whole should not be crudely equated with the settlers and leaders of Likud. Many Austrian Jews with Zionist loyalties condemned the visit, as did Israelis.
26 See Trotsky, 1971.
27 Budapest Beacon, 2016.
28 McDonnell, 2015.
29 For example, Tory Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 provided huge impetus to the Nazis of the National Front.
30 There is a long-held view that Italian fascism did not exhibit classic antisemitism. This has been challenged convincingly in my view by recent Italian historiography; however, this deserves separate treatment.
31 Callinicos, 2001.
32 Pew Research Centre, 2008.
33 Yglesias, 2016. Founded in 1913, the mission of the ADL was to combat defamation of Jews. However, after 1967, it increasingly turned to denouncing criticism of Israel.
34 Sugarman, 2016, and Marshall, 2016.
35 Median, 2014; Dunai, 2012.
37 Diószegi-Horváth, 2016; Deutsche Welle, 2016; Simon, 2016; Simon and Lovas, 2016.
38 Forster and Epstein, 1974.
39 Eban, 1973, pxxv.
40 Socialist Worker Party founder Tony Cliff, himself a Palestinian Jew, played an instrumental role in arguing the anti-Zionist case in Britain. His classic pamphlet “The Middle East at the Crossroads” was written in 1945. See also Cliff, 1982.
41 Wistrich, 1984.
42 For a classic analysis of the rise of Islamism see Harman, 1994.
43 Said, 1997, Kindle location 63.
44 Lewis, 1999.
45 Lewis, 1976.
46 Lewis, 1990.
47 Said, 1997, Kindle location 352.
48 Lewis, 2002.
49 Waldman, 2004.
50 Chesler, 2003; Foxman, 2003.
51 Taguieff, 2004.
52 Taguieff, 2004, pp9-10.
53 Taguieff, 2004, p1.
54 Laqueur, 2006, Kindle location 256-259.
55 Bauer, 2009, p322.
56 Bauer, 2009, pp325-326.
57 MacShane, 2008, Kindle location 36.
58 Elgot, 2013; Court and Tribunals Judiciary, 2013.
59 Zaretsky, 2012.
60 Sacks, 2016; Mirvis, 2016.
61 The IHRA itself acts as something of a camouflage. Its signatories includes several European states whose governing parties promote antisemitism and historical revisionism.
62 All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, 2015, p12.
63 House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 2016, p11; Department for Communities and Local Government, 2016, p4.
64 There is a wide corpus of writing on this subject, one classic text being Rodinson, 1973. For an excellent analysis of the Labour Party record see John Newsinger’s article in the previous issue of this journal—Newsinger, 2017.
65 Achcar, 2010.
66 Cited in Achcar, 2010, p242.
67 Although Lewis then portrays antisemitism as endemic and comparable to Nazi Germany.
68 Achcar, 2010.
69 Cited in Achcar, 2010, p159.
70 Achcar, 2010, p157.
71 Klug, 2004.
72 Achcar, 2010, pp34-35.
73 Silverstein, 2008, p19, p4.
74 Shaw, 1996, p23.
75 Mishra, 2012.
76 Achcar, 2010, pp220-231.
77 Pew Research Centre, 2016.
78 Shavit, 2004.
79 See Freedland, 2017.
80 It is important to note that Jews were not perceived as the primary victims at the end of the war. Until the 1960s the Holocaust received scant attention even in the West. The Soviet bloc regimes avoided reference to the “Final Solution” and counted Jewish deaths as nationals or “other oppressed peoples”.
81 See Harman, 2006, which critically reviews an article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in The London Review of Books later turned into a bestseller, “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy”.
82 Haaretz, 2016.
83 Wofford, 2016.
84 Wofford, 2016.
85 Board of Deputies of British Jews, 2016. The signatories included fervent Zionists and several prominent figures in the witch-hunt against Corbyn and the left. My point is that, notwithstanding this, the letter points to fractures beginning to open up, particularly among young Jews. The left, therefore, cannot only address the question of antisemitism through the lens of the Zionism vs anti-Zionism debate.
ALB, 2012, “Márton’s list”, Economist (28 November), www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2012/11/anti-semitism-hungary
Achcar, Gilbert, 2010, Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (Saqi).
All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, 2015, “Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism” (February), http://antisemitism.org.uk/wp-content/themes/PCAA/images/Report-of-the-All-Party-Parliamentary-Inquiry-into%20Antisemitism.pdf
Bachman, Bart, 2016, “Diminishing Solidarity: Polish Attitudes toward the European Migration and Refugee Crisis”, Migration Policy Institute (16 June), www.migrationpolicy.org/article/diminishing-solidarity-polish-attitudes-toward-european-migration-and-refugee-crisis
Bauer, Yehuda, 2009, “Problems of Contemporary Antisemitism”, in Murray Baumgarten, Peter Kenez and Bruce Thompson (eds), Varieties of Antisemitism: History, Ideology, Discourse (University of Delaware Press).
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