The last post looked at the anti-Semitism of the Right, which is reminiscent of the old anti-Semitism, twisted in new ways by the Internet. In some ways, modern Left-wing anti-Semitism is also similar to that of its ideological roots but has also been updated for the modern age. In this post, Left-wing anti-Semitism is under the microscope.
Modern Left-wing anti-Semitism is partly rooted in the animosity towards Jews displayed by Karl Marx, the grandson of a rabbi. Marx called Jews a “huckster race” while castigating Ferdinand Lasselle as an opportunistic “Yid” for opposing his ideas. As Jonah Goldberg has argued, Marx and his ideological offspring saw Jews as the holders of out-of-date religious ideas. These ideas got in the way of the revolution, the inexorable progressive march onwards towards the utopia of a classless communist society. For many socialists and communists, Jews were the driving force of the merchant bourgeoisie and of capitalism, therefore responsible for exploiting the proletariat. The secular sin of capitalism imputed to Jews was an echo of the religious sin of usury. In the end, Jews, seen as the embodiment of capitalism, integral to the plot to crush the proletariat underfoot, were themselves crushed by Soviet anti-Semitism under Stalin.
From the middle-twentieth century — partly as a response to the revelations about the horror of Communist Russia under Stalin — the Left in Western Europe and America underwent a change with the appearance of the New Left. Dave Rich describes the evolution of anti-Semitism on the Left in his book The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism. As a result of this, Jews are now seen as an oppressive force on the world stage, a hangover from the colonial period, the last outpost of European imperialism. The New Left, which placed greater influence on the politics of identity, was invested in Third Worldism. Third Worldism’s followers, inspired by such thinkers as Franz Fanon, sought a new and improved revolutionary society that would emerge from anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Third Worldism died with the end of the Cold War, but its influence can be seen in some of the anti-globalisation rhetoric o the modern far-Left. As Pascal Bruckner argued in The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt, many Western Leftists who adhere to this worldview hold a sentimentalised and exoticised view of the inhabitants of what we now call the Global South. For the adherents of this worldview like Jeremy Corbyn, these are not human beings; rather they are avatars for the redemption of the West, the last great hope for overthrowing the forces of oppression that Western Leftists have long campaigned against. Needless to say, this view smells of the soft bigotry of low expectations, stripping of all agency and individuality those the Left holds up as morally virtuous by dint of being poor and brown skinned. In Paul Berman’s words, the oppressed people of the world are materially poor but morally wealthy.
As a result of this worldview, Jews are now seen as one of the main oppressor groups, mainly because of Israel’s moves to defend itself in the 1967 Six Day War and subsequent conflicts. Since this time, Israel has been increasingly viewed as the aggressor, losing support among Western left-wing circles, which are obsessed with its actions. It is now seen as a remnant of Western imperialism, a colonial project designed to, at best, deliberately disenfranchise Palestinians, and perpetrate apartheid and genocide at worst. This leads to the phenomenon of Israeli Jews being seen as and called Nazis. The attachment of the ‘Nazi’ slur to Jews in Israel or anywhere else is, as Howard Jacobson argues in his essay Will Jews be Forgiven the Holocaust?, a sickening manifestation of the existential guilt many in Europe feel.
In his essay for The Hedgehog Review, titled “The Strange Persistence of Guilt”, Wilfrid M. McClay lays out his views on the guilt felt in Western societies today. As he argues, the loss of the Judeo-Christian economy of sin and repentance means that guilt is much harder to assuage and relieve oneself of that when the religious tradition was strong and taken for granted. But, as Melanie Phillips argues, what chance does Christianity have of regaining this role of guilt absolution and resolution when it contained the seeds that produced the Holocaust when the Catholic Church played a role in the Jews’ fate? Even without the deeper, underlying reasons for loss of faith, the Holocaust severely damaged, if not destroyed the religious recourse to guilt relief that most people relied upon.
The main driver of existential guilt many Europeans’ feel is their historical complicity in the Holocaust (although, as argued in the last post, this guilt is, unfortunately, fading in the younger generations). This burden of guilt induces resentment at the victim for reminding the perpetrator of the crime. This results in the psychological projection of Europeans’ guilt onto Jews: what better way to relieve this burden than to take the opportunity to apply their historical complicity in history’s greatest crime, to Jews, particularly Israelis when they defend themselves? Thus, Jews can be called Nazis and held responsible for their own persecution, whether in Europe or Israel. Not only can Europeans feel absolved, they can indulge in anti-Jewish behaviour with a clean conscience.
This also has the added bonus for Left-wing anti-Semites of removing victim status from Jews, even when they are the victims of attack and abuse. Victim status allows one to be morally innocent, to transcend moral responsibility and moral guilt. As McClay says, “When one is a certifiable victim, one is released from moral responsibility, since a victim is someone who is, by definition, not responsible for his condition, but can point to another who is responsible.” From the rhetoric on the Far-left, it appears not only are they resentful towards Jews as victims for reminding them of past crimes but also because, in the view of the Identitarian Left, they reduce the power of victimhood for the Left’s favoured oppressed groups. By stripping the Jews of victimhood, this enables the Far-left to support those who would not normally be seen as victims, but now are, thus relieving them of any moral culpability for their actions. This gives groups like Hamas, and regimes like that in Iran and elsewhere in the developing world a free pass. These groups and regimes are seen as victims of the oppressive hegemony of white Western patriarchy. Never mind that many of these groups and regimes are guilty of the very crimes the Far-left accuses the West and Israel of. They are sanctified by victimhood, foot-soldiers in the great resistance against Western tyranny. The moral inversion is reprehensible.
Finally, when confronted with the evidence of their moral corruption, the Far-left resorts to the worst slur against the Jews: the Holocaust allows the Jews to exploit their victimhood in order to get away with all the conspiracies that the Far-left (and Far-right) believes them guilty of. For the Far – and not so far – Left, it enables them to control the world, morally untouchable and rhetorically invulnerable. Added to this, when Jews raise the ways in which they are persecuted, they are told that they are playing the victim to shut down criticism, to gain political or economic advantage, instead turning the victimizer into the victim. One can see this whenever Israel defends itself, and Jews in Europe and elsewhere are accused of using the Holocaust to excuse their actions against Palestinians, who are now the subject of a Holocaust perpetrated by Jews. This phenomenon was also observable during the anti-Semitism scandal that gripped the British Labour Party again in April, where Jews who protested against the extent of labour Party anti-Semitism were accused of not being ‘real socialists’ by counter-protestors, and using their victim status as a way of smearing Corbyn and undermining his brand of Left-wing politics and thereby the Labour Party through a ‘shadowy conspiracy’.
As a result of the growth in victim culture that grew out of the unresolvable sense of guilt described in McClay’s essay, Jews are castigated for ‘milking’ their victim status, which is resented along with the legacy of the Holocaust, as it reduces the victim status of other more deserving oppressed groups. Jews are thus caught in a pincer movement; victimhood politics means they are constantly at risk of persecution for being the new victimisers, while they have no recourse to being victims themselves, even when they are, as the data show. The Left, which was traditionally the political home of Europe’s Jews, is now invested in identity politics grounded in a hierarchy of victim groups. In Britain at least, and increasingly across Europe, the Left is no longer a safe political home for Jews.