Michael Ezra

Anti-Semitism and the far left: a brief history

Anti-Semitism and the far left: a brief history
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Why does Jeremy Corbyn show such disdain for the mainstream Jewish community? Why does he prefer to associate with terrorist “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah? And why does the Corbyn clique now in charge of Labour insist on diluting the internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism?

The fact is that – despite its own boasts about “anti-racism” – the far-left has had a longstanding problem with Jews, and not just with “Zionists.” This problem pre-dates 1844, when Karl Marx published On The Jewish Question; but Marx’s essay is a good place to start.

In On the Jewish Question, Marx tied up Jews with capitalism: “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money....Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist...The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.” For Marx, in order for there to be human progress, capitalism, and with it, “the empirical essence of Judaism,” had to be abolished. Despite some of Marx's most ardent supporters’ attempts to excuse Marx’s words by placing them “in context” or otherwise, this reeks of a standard anti-Semitic trope through the years.

Marxists see everything in terms of power relations. As Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto, political power is “merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.” The ruling class, which is the capitalist class, oppress the proletariat or the working class. Marx and Engels demanded the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” Force is required, for as Engels explained, “in history nothing is achieved without violence and implacable ruthlessness.”

Jews and/or Judaism are thus tied up with money, with power, and with oppression. Through such an analysis, violence and demonisation of Jews are justified by some leftists. Consider Ulrike Meinhof of the Marxist Red Army Faction. For her, hatred of Jews was actually the hatred of capitalism. As a witness at the trial of Horst Mahler in 1972, she posed the question “How was Auschwitz possible, what was anti-Semitism?” Her stated opinion: “Auschwitz means that six million Jews were murdered and carted on to the rubbish dumps of Europe for being that which was maintained of them—Money-Jews.” Also, for her, the murder of the Israeli Olympic team at 1972 Munich Olympics was not only justified but something that could be praised.

Sections of the contemporary left insist they are only attacking Zionists, they are not attacking Jews. This might be more believable if they did not use the very same themes by tying up Zionists with money and political power. As examples, one can note a 1979 comment by an activist in the National Union of Mineworkers that it was “Zionist money power” that lay behind imperialism and the oppression of the Palestinian people. In a 1983 editorial of their newspaper, the Workers Revolutionary Party spoke of a “powerful Zionist connection” that stretched from such places as the top of the BBC, through to Margaret Thatcher’s government and right into Ronald Reagan’s White House. Whether it be Jews or “only Zionists,” the attacks are the same: they can be despised and justifiably attacked for political power, money, and oppression.

As an alternative to talking about Zionists controlling the press and influencing Western governments with their money, some Marxists take the opposite approach when it comes to Israel. By this alternative view, it is Western imperialism that holds the true responsibility for the oppression of the Palestinians, but with Israel as a tool of Western imperialism. Via this reading, Israel is a country placed in the region to ensure that Western imperialism’s economic interests in the Middle East, notably oil, are safe. But yet again, even with this perspective, political power, money, and oppression lie at the root at justifying, supporting, or excusing attacks on Zionists.

Jeremy Corbyn has appealed to both of these ideas. He considers Israel powerful enough to determine United States foreign policy, while declaring, to applause, his belief that Israel’s military operations are meant to exploit natural gas on Gaza’s coast for US benefit. A principled socialist with a view on foreign matters should really make up their mind. Who is the master in the relationship: Israel or the United States?

Since the left wish to overthrow imperialism, capitalism and eradicate oppression, and as the left defines itself as “anti-racist,” attacks on Jews for having money and power might not even fit in with some on the left’s view of what is anti-Semitic in the first place. Consider Matti Bunzl’s definition of traditional anti-Semitism. It is that which is “designed to effect the exclusion of Jews from the national body.... [whereby] Jews were construed as intrinsic outsiders to Europe’s nation-states, interlopers in a fantasy of ethnic purity.” But just this definition taken alone ignores the conspiratorial nature of much anti-Semitism from accusations of Christ killers, through to using money and power to control the press and government. The notorious anti-Semitic Russian fake document, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and the Dreyfus Affair in France, both of which had a Jewish conspiracy at their heart, were conveniently ignored by Professor Bunzl in his analysis.

From the 1970s, postmodernist leftists have attempted to redefine racism from simply having prejudice to having “prejudice plus power.” They have done so with some success. Judith Katz put it in her 1978 training manual for anti-racism that “It is important to push for the understanding that racism is ‘prejudice plus power’ and therefore third world people cannot be racist against whites in the United States. Third world people can be prejudiced against whites but clearly do not have the power as a group to enforce that prejudice.” By this way of thinking, if Jews/Zionists are deemed to have power and are the oppressors and Muslims/Arabs are deemed to not have power and are the oppressed, and if anti-Semitism is a form of racism, Muslim anti-Semitism is a contradiction: it cannot really exist. This is why, in a number of articles published in the wake of the Islamist murders at the Charlie Hebdo office, and the subsequent murders at the kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015, the Socialist Workers Party never mentioned the specific anti-Semitism at play in the choice of the supermarket where murders were committed, although they were quick to point out the rise in Islamophobia.

One might wonder what these old texts from Marx and Engels, and extremist views of the Red Army Faction, the Workers Revolutionary Party and the Socialist Workers Party has to do with Jeremy Corbyn. The answer is that the Labour leader's world view has clearly been shaped by such materials.