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Daniel Burston: Anti-Semitism on the Left

Past, Present and Future

We live in dark times. Climate change, corruption and the steady erosion of democratic norms and institutions have propelled far right nationalist and populist governments to power in India, the United States, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Turkey, and the Philippines. Furthermore, parties that embrace and espouse these attitudes are steadily gaining popularity,  posing serious electoral challenges to ruling parties and governing coalitions throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Why?

The increasingly unequal distribution of wealth over the last 40 years has eroded the living standards and future prospects of the middle and working classes in the West. Consequently, centrist parties are identified increasingly with the policies that promote the interests of the proverbial 1%. The diminished trust in mainstream politicians fuels extremism on both sides of the political spectrum. In addition, rising sea levels and prolonged periods of drought are causing catastrophic weather events and chronic shortages of food and water. These steadily deteriorating conditions are already feeding into violent conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, sending successive waves of refugees to Europe and the United States seeking asylum. 

The Far Right exploits the sense of victimization felt by middle and working class people by providing them with scapegoats from other cultures who are depicted as dangerous or expendable, rather than as full-fledged human beings who are entitled to dignity and human rights. Anti-Semitism is a prominent feature of many of these movements, which use hostility to immigrants and minorities as their primary recruiting tool. Many of these groups have scripted George Soros, a Jewish billionaire, in the role of a demonic Jewish adversary who is using his wealth to flood their respective countries with immigrants and criminals. He is accused of undermining national sovereignty and traditional values through his support of liberal civic organizations. This idea is expressed repeatedly in the official media in Victor Orban’s Hungary. And we heard a variation on the same message in abbreviated form among the neo-Nazis who marched in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August, 2017, chanting – “The Jews will not replace us!” Richard Bowers, who massacred 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 was thoroughly imbued with this Right wing nonsense. Because of misinformation he gleaned from Alt-right chat rooms and websites, he was convinced that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which meets regularly at the Tree of Life, was taking money from Soros (and other Jewish liberals) to bring immigrants and refugees in the United States to dilute and, in due course, to destroy “America” – or rather, his White Supremacist fantasy of what American is. 

The far-Left’s narrative about Jews is quite different, of course. In the United States, many Left wing activists disparage the majority of American Jews, saying that we enjoy all the perks of White privilege, and therefore seek to “uphold”, rather than to oppose or dismantle White Supremacy; the very thing far-Right activists insist that we are secretly intent on destroying. Despite the uptick in Black anti-Semitism, and the enduring influence of rabid anti-Semites like Louis Farakhan, many activists still claim that anti-Semitism is just a “White on White” issue that has nothing to do with White Supremacy or systemic racism, and is therefore not worthy of their attention or concern. And whereas Right wing extremists abhor multiculturalism and promote Islamophobia, the far Left espouses a strange brand of multiculturalism that typically excludes Jews and devalues or ignores Jewish experience, but often embraces Islamist organizations in what it imagines is a progressive, anti-imperialist coalition.  

In 2018, a survey of 12 European countries and the United Kingdom conducted by The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that the three most common justifications for anti-Semitic hatred were that “Jews behave like Nazis towards the Palestinians”, “Jews have too much power” and “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes”. The survey also disclosed that European victims of anti-Semitic harassment or persecution identified 30% of the perpetrators as Muslim extremists, another 21% as Left wing extremists, and only 13% as Right wing extremists – a truly startling finding. 

Of course, these figures are averaged out among 13 countries, and taken at face value, obscure the fact that there is considerable variation from one country to the next. For example,  53% of Polish Jews and 46% of Hungarian Jews identified “someone with a right-wing political view” as the typical aggressor, compared to 20% of Jews in Germany, 11% in the UK, and 7% in France. Moreover, 41% of German Jews and 33% of French Jews said “someone with a Muslim extremist view” was the perpetrator, compared to just 2% of Polish and Hungarian Jews. Nevertheless, if these aggregated figures are any indication, roughly half of the anti-Semitic hate crimes across Europe are committed by Muslims and Left-wingers. 

Further studies need to be done before we can establish how accurate these findings are. But though they may not be definitive, these figures are extremely suggestive, and say a great deal about the lived experience of European Jews. The fact that Left wing and Muslim aggression accounts for roughly half the experienced anti-Semitism in Europe stands in stark contrast to the situation in the United States, where the overwhelming majority of hate crimes are committed by White Supremacists of one stripe or another.

And what about the United States? Each year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) conducts polls in the USA and Europe to gauge the extent and severity of anti-Semitic prejudice in the general population. In 2019, it determined that while most of the population (61%) subscribes to one or more of the stereotypes that are commonplace, suggesting a low level of anti-Semitic prejudice, comparatively few Americans subscribe to most of the items on the ADL’s scale (which is different from the European study’s, by the way). For example, the ADL found that 

  • 31% of American adults believe Jewish employers go out of their way to hire other Jews.
  • 27% believe the Jews killed Jesus.
  • 24% believe American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States.
  • 19% believe “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.”

However, only 7% of Americans hold American Jews responsible for the government of Israel’s conduct, while 66% of Americans feel that Jews have made significant contributions to American culture, and 79% feel that Jews have strong family values. More importantly, perhaps, these numbers have not changed appreciably in recent years, indicating 1) that anti-Semitism is no more prevalent here now than formerly, and therefore 2) that the recent resurgence of anti-Semitic violence is the result of rabid anti-Semites feeling more emboldened in our current political climate. The news from Europe is more discouraging, however. Roughly 25% of those polled by the ADL subscribed to mostof stereotypes on the list, as opposed to one or two, indicating that anti-Semitic sentiments are prevalent and on the rise in the general population.

How do we explain the discrepancies between Europe and the United States? Left leaning movements and political parties have traditionally played a more active and prominent role in British and European politics than they have in the United States, where socialism is still a dirty word, evoking fear and hostility in many quarters. However, faced with declining power and popularity, the ravages of neo-liberalism and the ensuing resurgence of Right wing populism, Left leaning Europeans often make common cause with marginalized and oppressed groups; the very same groups that the Right reviles.

Meanwhile, Islamism has established a strong foothold in many impoverished and marginalized Muslim communities in Europe, where several generations have grown up in Muslim ghettos without ever feeling welcomed or integrated into the cultural mainstream. In many ways, the lived experience of many Muslims growing up in Europe is similar to those of stateless Palestinians living in refugee camps. Mindful of this parallel, many European Muslims are bitterly and irrevocably anti-Zionist, and their anti-Zionism frequently shades into violent anti-Semitism. 

That said, Left wing anti-Semitism is nothing new. In the 19th century, Eugen Dühring, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin all characterized Jews as an international cabal of exploiters and war profiteers, just as their Right wing counterparts did – and indeed, still do. Richard Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite, started out as a Left-winger, only to morph into a proto-Nazi as he rose to fame. Joseph Stalin was another vicious anti-Semite, both before and after the founding of Israel.

Nevertheless, many Leftists still imagine that anti-Semitism is a uniquely Right wing phenomenon, or that support for Islamist organizations is a perfectly valid response to Israel’s human rights abuses. So, for example, at a teach-in at UC Berkeley in 2006, philosopher Judith Butler said:

. . . understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, is extremely important. That does not stop us from being critical of  certain dimensions of both movements. It doesn’t stop those of us who are interested in non-violent politics from raising the question of there are other options besides violence (Butler, 2006, quoted in Lappin, 2019).

         Other options besides violence? How tactfully put! But with all due respect, saying that Hamas and Hezbollah are “progressive” or  “on the Left” is really somewhat bizarre. Remember, the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah are religious fundamentalists who are demonstrably and unabashedly misogynistic, anti-gay and anti-democratic. They pay lip service to the rhetoric of human rights when it serves their purposes, but ignore them completely when it does not. They engage in Holocaust minimization and denial, and claim that the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves. They endorse The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an authentic historical document, rather the vicious slander that it is. 

Fortunately, some Left-wing theorists are more even handed. In Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek noted that

A disturbing sign of the failure of the radical Left is their uneasiness when it comes to unambiguously condemning anti-Semitism, as if by doing so one would be playing into Zionist hands. There should be no compromise here . . (Žižek, 2011, p. 136).

 Žižek goes on to lament the

. . . all too easy and uncritical acceptance of anti-American and anti-Western Muslim groups as representing “progressive” forms of struggle, as automatic allies; groups like Hamas and Hezbollah suddenly appear as revolutionary agents, even though their ideology is explicitly anti-modern, rejecting the entire egalitarian legacy of the French Revolution (Žižek, 2011, p. 137).

         Žižek believes that the world-wide resurgence of anti-Semitism is symptomatic of the Left’s impotence, and the absence of any meaningful class-struggle in Europe and the United States. Well, perhaps. But Žižek does not stop there. Having stated his misgivings about Leftist support for Islamist organizations, he reflects on the history of European anti-Semitism and the founding of the state of Israel, and decries the Israeli government’s brutal and illegal annexation of Palestinian lands. 

So, Žižek acknowledges the horrors that brought Israel into existence, and does not dispute its right to exist, but consistently calls attention to human rights abuses and ideological delusions on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlike Žižek, however, Left wing anti-Semites resemble their Right wing counterparts when they

  1. engage in or tolerate Holocaust minimization or denial, without protesting against it
  2. endorse “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as an authentic historical document, despite the fact that it is a slanderous fabrication

Unlike their Right wing counter-parts, they also

  1. blame all Jews indiscriminately for the actions and the Israeli government, which they often equate with Nazism
  2. blame Israel exclusively for the breakdown of the Oslo peace process, letting the Palestinian leadership off the hook entirely
  3. offer uncritical or unqualified support for Israel’s adversaries,  ignoring their (frequent and well documented) human rights abuses, while focusing relentlessly on Israel’s (frequent and well documented) human rights abuses
  4. affirm the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, while denying the same right to Jews.

Americans may take some comfort from the knowledge that anti-Semitic sentiments and stereotypes haven’t grown appreciably here in recent years. But the situation in Europe is dire, and getting worse by the week. Moreover, there are some signs that America may be moving in the same direction as Europe, only at a slower pace. And as anti-Semitism in Europe grows, so do the number of Jewish immigrants who leave Europe for Israel and the States. Indeed, many demographers predict that if present trends persist, in 30 years Europe will be virtually Judenrein, or free of Jews, to use Adolf Hitler’s favored expression. And while another Holocaust seems unlikely, violent campaigns against Jewish communities – pogroms – may soon be in the news again.

Daniel Burston is the author of numerous books and articles on the history of the human sciences, including Psychoanalysis, Politics and the Postmodern University (Palgrave MacMillen, 2020).

Copyright 2020 Daniel Burston

Many Left-wing Americans believe that Jews, who are often conflated with whites, should “check their privilege,” because anti-Semitism just isn’t as bad as other forms of racism. (Illustration: Forward)

4 comments on “Daniel Burston: Anti-Semitism on the Left

  1. melpacker
    March 2, 2020

    I would never dispute that there is some anti-Semitism on the Left that should always be identified and opposed, and even more so in the general population of both Europe and the US, but we must never conflate anti-Israel or anti-Zionist criticisms with anti-Semitism. That is a smoke-screen behind which Zionist Israel has and continues to hide it’s murderous and apartheid policies towards the Palestinian people. In addition, as far as I am concerned, the identification as “left” should not be applied at all when anti-Semitism is present, whether or not those expressing such sentiments self-identify as such.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Arlene Weiner
    March 1, 2020

    Just an observation: I don’t think HIAS met regularly at Tree of Life synagogue. I’m a member of a congregation that did meet there. We had a “Refugee Shabbat” that was listed on HIAS’s web site, and to which the shooter referred. BTW he lived in an area in which many Bhutanese refugees had settled. And another observation: “cabal” is derived from “kabbalah,” a Jewish mystical tradition that some non-Jews have taken up, so it embeds an anti-Semitic trope. (I accidentally typed “Kabbalah” in twitter and hit a horrific vein of paranoia. Never read comments if you want to sleep well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jvi7350
    March 1, 2020

    Keep in mind that both what media and politicians call the left and the right cater to the blame game, the fear, the victim syndrome that causes populism to rise. These “dark times” that you refer to are a product of a statist mentality, meaning a misguided belief that somehow the government can and must deliver us from evil. The evil is of course is any handy scapegoat available. This paternalistic approach is not the sole province of “left” or “right” statism, but a denial of liberty itself as a good thing, because to be free also means to be responsible for yourself, and that is something that politicians don’t want you to believe.

    Liked by 1 person

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