The shame of antisemitism on the left has a long, malign historyRoundup
tags: britain, Labour Party, antisemitism
So, we’re back to the “Jewish Question”? The current antisemitism crisis on the left has not come out of nowhere. Instead, it has its roots in a tradition on the left itself, which, at best, has always had difficulty in responding swiftly to antisemitism and, at worst, excused or condoned, even promoted it. It is not, of course, the only tradition on the left, but unless we understand this history, we won’t get very far in resolving today’s crisis.
We need, above all, to think about why some on the left have always seen Jews as a problem and why they have helped the idea of a “Jewish Question” to re-emerge with such potency. At root is the thought that if antisemitism exists, it must have something to do with how Jews supposedly behave. That supposed behaviour may be described in different ways – sometimes it has an economic character, sometimes a social one, sometimes a political one. But what is common is the idea that Jews are to blame for antisemitism and that to protest against them is understandable, or even necessary.
This first became a serious problem on the left in the late 19th century, as antisemitism first became a political force in the modern world. Some on the left flirted with the response that there might be something progressive about antisemitism: that it was a kind of anti-capitalism, however crude, which could be harnessed to the socialist cause. They also thought that philosemitism was more of a problem, because it supposedly encouraged Jews to make too much of (or even fabricate) antisemitism and to resist assimilation. One criticism of this approach at the time was to call it the “socialism of fools”, a problematic formulation because it suggested that antisemitism was still some kind of socialism.
As antisemitism was radicalised by the Nazis – it no longer being enough to exclude Jews when they should be wiped off the face of the Earth – this way of thinking made it difficult for too many on the left to prioritise solidarity with Jews. Neither the Social Democrats nor the Communists in Germany made opposition to antisemitism a major issue, nor did the Resistance across Europe. The fear was that to highlight the fight against antisemitism would alienate potential supporters. This is not to ignore some wonderful examples of solidarity, though the repeated invocations of Cable Street can give a misleading picture. The Communist party soon switched to loyally supporting the Hitler-Stalin pact, which effectively delivered large numbers of Jews up to the Nazis. ...