Is Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, an anti-Semite?
It seems unlikely. Yes, he may have been chief executive of Breitbart, the angry right-wing news website whose comment section is frequently clogged up by white kids blathering on about “Jewish control”.
Yes, he may be an inspiration to the alt-right – that somewhat frazzled group of online agitators who hate political correctness, think feminism is the reason they can’t get a job or a girlfriend and are convinced that some powerful force is running, and ruining, their lives. Probably the Jews.
But Bannon cannot be held responsible for what his readers or followers think. As Alan Dershowitz said this week, yes there has been “carelessness” at Breitbart under Bannon, such as when one of its writers described a conservative Republican as a “renegade Jew”.
But “I haven’t seen any evidence of personal anti-Semitism on the part of Bannon”, said Dershowitz. And “we have to be very careful before we accuse [someone] of being an anti-Semite”.
He’s right. If we over-use the term anti-Semite, we risk making people even more sceptical of this prejudice. And God knows there’s already too much doubt about the extent and seriousness of anti-Semitism today.
But there’s no doubt that the Trump phenomenon, the rise of this self-consciously un-PC loudmouth, has tapped into, or at least revealed, the lingering anti-Semitism of the right.
On some fringes of the alt-right, a mostly web-based movement that thinks old conservatives have sold out and must be replaced by a white-nationalist outlook, there is certainly a weird fear of Jews. Some alt-right activists openly talk about creating a whiter America, free of black culture and “Jewish power”.
As the American journalist Cathy Young says, there’s “virulent bigotry” in the alt-right, much of it aimed at Jews and Zionists. Zionists are slammed for okaying the creation of what the alt-right wrongly views as the “ethnically pure” state of Israel while opposing ethnic purity in the US.
The Daily Beast recently reported that leading alt-right activists don’t see Jews as whites. “Jews and Jews”, they say. It’s all a useful, disturbing reminder that anti-Semitism is as pronounced in the angry right as it is in sections of the edgy left.
And here’s the thing — for all the radical left’s raging against the alt-right, it actually shares something in common with it: a conviction that something Jewish, something Israel-related, wields terrifying influence over Western politics and our lives.
The alt-right and what we might call the alt-left might like screaming at each other. But they have a common discomfort with Jewish influence. The alt-right is more open, explicitly bemoaning “Jewish control”, while rad lefties prefer to speak of a sinister Israel Lobby puppeteering our politics, or of a “Zionist-led media”, in the words of NUS president Malia Bouattia.
But both seem driven by a sense of siege, by a conviction that they are threatened by awesome, scary forces.
As the Guardian reports, the alt-right is motored by a feeling that “white identity is under attack”. On sections of the left, meanwhile, we often hear talk of evil banks and “hidden networks” (in the words of Wikileaks) that are invading our minds and lives. The alt-right and alt-left are weird mirror versions of each other, different expressions of the same sad politics of overblown victimhood and even conspiracy theorising.
This tells us something important about what drives anti-Semitism today. It isn’t the old politics of race; it’s the new politics of identity.
When people are encouraged to see themselves as a fragile identity under attack — a white guy in a multicultural world, a Muslim in the wicked West, a woman in a patriarchal world — the more they will come to see themselves as permanent victims of external forces.
And what scary external force do many people naturally orientate to, and sometimes view as the greatest power of all? Israel. Zionists. Jews. The end result of most political movements based on a narcissistic sense of victimhood, conspiracy theory and siege is the Jew — or at least something Jewish.
The rise of the alt-right and the “Zio”-bashing of the alt-left should remind us of the dark avenues identity politics can go down. To challenge anti-Semitism today, we need to call into question the fragile, identity-obsessed mindset of too many on both the right and left.