by Barnaby Raine.
The following pieces appeared in Salvage #6: Evidence of Things Not Seen. The issue can be ordered individually here, or as part of a subscription, available here. A short preview of this essay originally appeared on the Salvage website. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition.
Measured analysis is out, polemics are all the rage. Consider this. A major study by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research finds anti-Semitic attitudes evenly spread across Britain’s political spectrum – with one clear exception: those identifying as ‘very right-wing’ are two to four times more likely to dislike Jews than anyone else. This is the context in which, in late 2016, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee conducted an inquiry into anti-Semitism.
Their report nods to YouGov polling that finds anti-Semitism pollutes all the main parties equally, with UKIP twice as sullied: UKIP is then never mentioned again. We read that the far Right is responsible for three quarters of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK, and that it was ‘an increase in far-right extremist activity’ that provoked the writing of the report – after which the far Right, too, is never mentioned again. The report leans on surveys produced by the fringe Campaign Against Antisemitism, which claims British Jews believe Labour and the Left are the homes of contemporary anti-Semitism. CAA has always lacked credibility; their polling has been panned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, their statistical work described as ‘littered with flaws’ by Jewish Policy Research, and their whole methodology called into question by a senior official at the Community Security Trust. Nonetheless, eight pages of the Home Affairs Committee report are dedicated to covering Labour’s supposed bigotry.
There is no other corner of national life that gets anything like the same level of attention in the report, with the partial exception of pro-Palestinian left-wingers in student politics. That choice is significant. These Members of Parliament judge it their duty not to interrogate popular perceptions by recourse to evidence, but to reflect those perceptions, as recorded by the CAA, and so to add fuel to the fires. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, for example, produces a video featuring teenage girls who fear leaving their homes because ‘the far Left’ might identify them as Jews and attack them. That is a dreadful state of affairs. But what is remarkable about the MPs’ report is that it documents the incongruity to be explained – citing the YouGov and the CAA polls, which demonstrate a big gap between the realities of anti-Semitism and perceptions about it – while vigorously participating in the alarmism that sustains that very gap. We are in the middle of a foul mess.
Readers who have had the misfortune to spend any time in Facebook groups like the Labour Party Forum will know this is not the whole story. There a veritable stream of comments complains about Rothschild conspiracies and international ‘Zionist’ cabals, and when berated, the response that comes back is always the same: ‘anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism’. This is a fitting indication of the poverty such slogans – of course, anti-Zionism need not be intrinsically anti-Semitic, since it can be founded on anti-racist opposition to settler-colonialism, and of course it is pernicious how often and how casually the two things are conflated in Britain today, rendering invisible or unacceptable the Palestinian desire for homes and freedom pitted against a racist state, but anti-Zionism can be anti-Semitism. It can arise out of a prior hatred of Jews, or legitimate anger at Israeli crimes can turn to blaming Judaism or Jewishness as the purported root of the problem. Scaremongering aside, it is quite clear that these attitudes are not entirely unknown on the left. Partisan and alarmist, the CAA makes some silly and offensive inclusions on its list of anti-Semites in Labour, but its dossier nonetheless contains a great deal of damning material. The work of identifying such attitudes is hindered by an assumption that anti-Semitism must always be a conscious hatred of the kind exhibited in Nazi propaganda. Treating it instead as a structure of feeling, as potentially unconscious, as ideological, reveals its extent – people who say, ‘I don’t have a racist bone in my body’, and who really believe it, might still cross the road to avoid a young black man, or watch out for penny-pinchers when doing business with someone who ‘looks a little Jewish’. They might say ‘Zionists’ and mean ‘Jews’, knowingly or not. Probably only a few of those who harbour such bigotries splatter them across Twitter, or write articles openly calling for more anti-Semitism. There is, I hope to show below, good reason for thinking that anti-Semitic attitudes are likely to be dramatically more widespread than is usually thought.
Since 2015, debate on this subject has usually remained mired in each new scandal; every few months another Labour Party anti-Semitism story flares up and a slew of articles follows. Amid the slanging match, nobody has much time to develop an account of anti-Semitism capable of explaining both its persistence in contemporary Britain and its improper mobilisation as an allegation. Unfortunately, this is today an urgent task, especially for the anti-Zionist left, which lacks rigorous theories of contemporary anti-Semitism. We have need of them. The starting point should be to step beyond conspiratorial thinking, which is becoming ubiquitous. If anti-Semitism is an unconscious phobia of Jews, one that warms many a soul beyond the nefarious ranks of the far Right, accusations of anti-Semitism are not just the deliberately disingenuous work of right-wingers who are seeking nefarious means to bring down Jeremy Corbyn or to buttress the Israeli state. On both sides, people who consider themselves honest anti-racists acting in good faith can be responsible for nasty things. That is what should interest us. We require first of all the one thing that has been most painfully absent from all the discussions of the last few years, a sense, beyond clichés of what anti-Semitism is.
Like that of Vico, Jewish history-telling is cyclically tragic. From Biblical Egypt to Weimar Germany, in our own narratives times of comfort and joy for Jews were always the augurs of misery to come – the higher the summit, the further the fall. In most of the world, we live now in good times. Anti-Semitism in the twenty-first-century Jewish imaginary is therefore located in the past and in the future, as spectral. Worries about anti-Semitism are almost universally anxieties about what happened long ago read as a warning about what might happen next. These are not protests about the organisation of social relations that currently obtains, as in (say) the predominant analysis of white supremacy or patriarchy. Such an approach licenses paranoia. Where progress in the present to narrow the gender pay gap or battle the carceral state might be celebrated as undermining patriarchy or white supremacy, if fears are future-oriented – as in the case of anti-Semitism – no amount of material comfort and social respect for Jews can allay them. The better things get, the worse they might get. Clearly this is a route to madness, so its kernel of truth is troubling and frustrating. The narrative is not easily dismissed. It is true that times of Jewish security and prosperity have often summoned anti-Semitism, which tells us something important about the anti-Semitic worldview.
Racism usually treats its Other as inferior. Slavery in America addressed the black man as ‘boy’, as if he were a perpetually half-formed human. Colonialism speaks to its victims as savages, devoid of the necessary psychological mechanisms for ensuring social order and so requiring repression. Anti-Semitism instead treats Jews as terrifyingly superior: rich, powerful, cunning, effectively conspiring to pursue their own interests and so to crush everyone else. The anti-Semite looks miserably upwards in the social hierarchy and feels bitter, where racists usually look hatefully downwards instead. In Mein Kampf, Hitler is almost admiring of his image of the Jew.
Hardly in any people of the world is the instinct of self-preservation more strongly developed than in the so-called ‘chosen people’… Which people finally has experienced greater changes than this one – and yet has always come forth the same from the most colossal catastrophes of mankind? What an infinitely persistent will for life, for preserving the race do these facts disclose!
This is not to say that Jews are only superior in the anti-Semitic imaginary. We are instead a treacherous, warped compound of superiority and inferiority. After 1789, Jews were often pictured as the image of Enlightenment unchained, and this rough similarity between the anti-Semite’s understanding of Jews and Max Horkheimer’s classic analysis of Nazism is worth noting. In both cases reason roams free, terrifying for being untamed by sentiment. Too much rationalism, too little emotion: deficiency and excess, the super- and the subhuman go hand in hand. As ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ sundered from ties to native soils, Jews are exemplars of a globalising bourgeois future feared by parochial conservatisms.
This is a thoroughly different logic of fear from the one common to more patronising racisms, and it is especially virulent since it entertains little possibility of acculturating Jews into Christian mores, as is the preferred strategy of liberal racists in most cases. We Jews are already too clever – clever enough to outsmart only-human gentiles, is the fear – and so anti-Semitism is perpetually paranoid and defensive where modernity’s racisms usually self-present with a benevolent, ‘civilising’ edge. That edge, possible for medieval and early modern theological anti-Semitism, is anathema to modern ethno-cultural anti-Semitism, which has lost much of its ancestors’ confidence in the practical supremacy of Christian virtue. Hence Zionism, enmeshed at its foundation in this anti-Semitic imagery and later even borrowing that phrase ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, seeks to solve the quandary by giving Jews a land, by pulling them out of Europe in order to make them proper Europeans. Zionism involves the belated recognition that bourgeois assimilationism requires more than itself, that Jews must renounce assimilation in Germany and transform themselves into peasants and soldiers elsewhere in order really to vanquish their distinctness, to rid themselves of their Chosenness, to become just like other Europeans. Early Zionist optimism extended only so far as to think that the dastardly, reprehensible Jews could be remade.
Anti-Semitism’s dialectic holds that too much of a good thing (intelligence, hard work and so on) is a very dangerous thing indeed. For gentiles, genocidal eliminationism is hardly an illogical leap from this standpoint, if you factor in norms of racially defined ‘self-preservation.’ Hence Himmler’s chilling Posen speeches, in which the Final Solution is justified by recourse to a conception of essentially antagonistic interests pitting Aryans against Jews: if Jews were fighting in the Wehrmacht, Himmler argues, no German could be sure of their interests being defended by their own army, peopled by deformed enemies. Only the addition of a pseudo-science of innate racial difference, rooting Jewish enmity in a problematic and intrinsic psychology, separates this from the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus affair. Nazism was intellectually novel, then, but not comprehensively so. Like most modern anti-Semites the Nazi resents the Jew above all for being not him, for supposedly having interests opposed to his. Those interests are not fungible. Jews are destined to a life of thwarting gentile aspirations.
Sartre remains the best analyst of the root problem with this way of thinking, though he is not the most sensitive reader of its mutations. His Anti-Semite and Jew includes the claim, ‘it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew.’ The text was formative for Fanon, for whom in Black Skin, White Masks, ‘it is the settler who has brought the native into existence’, and it sounds too like de Beauvoir’s insistence that one only ‘becomes’ a woman at the hands of patriarchal moulding. But this is more than the insistence that subjects are formed through encounters with one another. It is rather a claim that the Jewish subject as he (usually he) appears in the anti-Semitic mind is a fantasy. As Brian Klug puts it, anti-Semitism is the hatred of Jews ‘qua not Jews’. That echoes a superb discussion of anti-Semitism in a letter of Gramsci’s, written in 1931, in which he castigates his sister-in-law for seeing a world of Jewish power. The chief intellectual problem he identifies is her conjuring of ethnic ciphers in place of complex human beings. She has invented fantasy ‘Jews’, he says. That is indeed the root of the malaise. It permits a kind of inversion of Feuerbach on theology – a negative projection where people take all that they dislike in themselves and imagine it bundled together in an externalised image, an alien being, a Jew. Already in 1931, Gramsci puts ‘race’ in scare-quotes and mocks Zionists for embracing its mythology, seeing in their own constructed portrait of the Jew an inviolate subject traversing millennia of history. One might easily insert ‘Zionist’ for ‘philo-Semite’ in the old Yiddish joke: ‘the philo-Semite is the anti-Semite who loves Jews’. All are invested in a picture of politics as the essential, unalterable contest between races, with the interests of Jews and gentiles pitted forever against each other.
Often the response on the Left (Lenin’s attacks on Bundism included) has unfortunately been to demand unqualified assimilation. The problem with assimilation, most overt in its bourgeois forms, is its assumption that the problem lies mostly with the Other, that the Other must learn to be more like the society that surrounds her; this is its deep connection to anti-Semitism. It misses the possibility raised suggestively by Gil Anidjar, that the Semite might have something to teach Europe. We might add that Jewish theology offers in Chosenness a profoundly important frame for radical political thought; like Marx’s proletariat, the Chosen are not a master race but a people bound to a vocation, tikkun olam, to mend the world. As Sai Englert has written previously in Salvage, Jewish secular traditions preach doykayt, ‘hereness’, in which that ultimate Messianic spectre of total liberation is welded to immediate obligations to battle for the minor amelioration of our homes. Whether in our obdurate scepticism towards false prophets and false messiahs such as those proclaimed by Christianity and Islam or in our diasporic alienation from the limits of national soils, much that anti-Semites hate in Jews is worth cherishing as a ‘Semitic’ orientation to the world, an opening too for solidarity among peoples liminally related to Europe.
This is why we should speak of ‘anti-Semitism’, rather than of ‘antisemitism’, according to the spelling that is now ubiquitous, and promoted by the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer on the grounds that ‘Semitism’ does not exist, so the hyphen is unnecessary. Semitism does exist, or should do. It is possible to adopt such a position without falling into the philo-Semitism that sustains Zionism – or rather: those later brands of Zionism that are not openly anti-Semitic, as were Herzl, Nordau, Jabotinsky – if one only refuses two conflations in Zionism and anti-Semitism. The first connects identity to race, to blood and so reads Semitism as the intrinsic condition of a minority, permanently, and inaccessible to the rest. Quite aside from anything else, this has nothing to do with Judaism, which has since Maimonides (indeed, since Ruth) understood itself as a set of social practices constituting an open peoplehood into which converts can enter. The second conflation is even more endemic. It is a failure to distinguish cultural interests from political interests. Semitic cosmopolitanism can fight for universalist politics, marching alongside people of all backgrounds without feeling any need to obliterate cultural differences or even merely to tolerate them as in the multicultural imaginary: from such differences cosmopolitans derive strength.
The historical record for this project is not good, but no alternative can claim to have worked either. Zionism has manifestly failed to keep Jews safe, to combat anti-Semitism. Its failure is predictable given its whole edifice relies on instantiating the Jew/gentile binary imagined by anti-Semites. It feeds hatreds, freezes them, needs them. At the same time, its copycat nineteenth-century assimilationism succeeds in turning Jews into colonists imbued with the colonial ethic, living dark lives in fear of indigenous violence. Zionism’s project involves inserting Jews into one global coalition and removing them from another; it wants us to join the league of nations, of men with castles and bayonets to defend them, and so it hopes to cut us out of the league of the stateless, the league that loathes the violence of property and empire. This is not a credo to end anti-Semitism but to manage it, and implicitly to fuel it by insisting awfully on Jewish enmity towards the suffering. Semitic cosmopolitanism is the only answer to anti-Semitism.
Left or Right?
Current debates involve highly charged assumptions about the political position of anti-Semitism, its relationship to the left-right spectrum. The prominence of this question is a feature of new arguments provoked by anti-Zionism, but one Jewish joke from the Third Reich shows how much is not new. Two workers sit next to each other reading. The first reads Die Rote Fahne, the Communist Party’s newspaper. He turns, and sees the second man reading Der Sturmer. ‘Why are you reading that Nazi rubbish?!’ he exclaims. The second man replies: ‘In your paper, all I find is bad news – we’re being stripped of our rights daily, deported to the East, and butchered by fascism. In this paper, it’s all good news! I read that we Jews are rich and powerful, and that we run the world!’
Like the Left, and unlike most brands of the Right, the anti-Semite sees politics as a contest between oppressors and oppressed and claims to side resolutely with the latter. Nietzsche compared anti-Semitism to anarchism as brands of ressentiment, jealous attempts to extinguish power. As James Baldwin found in Harlem and as Alain Badiou claims in the banlieues, anti-Semitism from slaves and the colonised reads Jews as the apex of whiteness, the highest kings of a European elite. It is, in the Nietzschean frame and in its deluded self-image, the lambs’ revolt against birds of prey. Before banning Jews from most professions, the Nazis introduced numerus clausus legislation purporting to forbid Jewish over-representation in elite occupations relative to their population size, easily represented as a measure of natural justice countering on behalf of the demos the dominance of an old and narrow elite. A 1923 libel case offers a more pointed example. Hitler successfully sued the Social Democratic newspaper Vorwarts after it accused him of being funded by ‘American Jews and Henry Ford.’ It would be wrong to read the paper’s allegation as nothing but a shallow bid to accuse Hitler of hypocrisy. For this lynchpin of anti-Nazi politics, attempts to paint fascism as a tool of the powerful wielded against the working class intuitively involved mobilising the dreaded spectre of Jewry as well as of the bourgeoisie. Such is the ‘socialism of fools’, but these examples are also designed to illustrate that there is nothing necessarily left-wing about purported anti-elitism. Today’s tabloid attacks on ‘union barons’ ordering strikes to hurt ‘ordinary people’ ought to dispel that illusion. This section will attempt to ground a reading of anti-Semitism as an example of conservative rather than radical political thought, while challenging the presumption on the left that anti-Semitism is rightwing because it is simply a brand of racism. It is, I hope to show, a slightly different kind of right-wing ideology, and the category ‘racism’ is not a very good way of capturing its logic. Its strategy for defending hierarchy is different from blaming the unfortunate for their disadvantage, as in most racisms. The case of anti-Semitism should enjoin us to think better about the various forms that conservative consciousness can take.
Though the Nazi example has induced a presupposition that modern anti-Semitism is above all racism, its best parallels are to other fascist hatreds beyond race – freemasonry above all – and today we might add homophobia as an analogue where the absorption of some from the loathed group within state and business elites generates official disapproval for a prejudice that comes to appear rebellious. That establishment shift has in these two cases provoked a crisis for anti-discrimination movements, enabling and encouraging their departure from coalitions of the oppressed, though in the LGBT case it has resulted only in a political deadening, a baleful moderation and not quite the aggressive turn to celebrating oppression as in the case of Zionism’s post-war hegemony in Jewish politics.
This certainly represents a significant change. The police protect synagogues and raid mosques. Anti-Semitism’s immediate damage is almost like the case of playground homophobia in liberal settings or oppressive ‘everyday sexism’: prejudice that winds its way into the experiences of those it targets shorn of the brutality of state direction. The question is then how far low-level discrimination constitutes oppression. The answer is complicated. Jews are no longer subject to the nation-cohering machinery of fear and loathing that now targets Muslims in most Western societies, but the underground prevalence of anti-Semitic ideology is bound to end up affecting the lives of Jews – in a neatly intersectional example, one Jewish friend of mine was accused of penny-pinching when she learned of a gender pay gap and asked her boss for a pay rise – so dividing neatly between oppressive ideas and material realities of oppression is foolish. Jews face oppressive experiences as a consequence of anti-Semitic ideology, even though they are not oppressed in the same way or to the same degree as Muslims, African-Americans, undocumented migrants and plenty of others canonically treated by power as threats to civilisation.
If the reality of Jewish success feels relatively recent, there is nothing substantively new about a bigoted imaginary that conjures images of Jewish wealth and geopolitical power. Whereas racism usually involves a tragic social theory in which the innate mores of the subaltern wreck society (‘moral breakdown’ as a problem of ‘black culture’, in one contemporary example), the anti-Semite instead claims to empathise with the dispossessed against the fortunate and the privileged. With its loathing for Jewish power as the world’s cancer, anti-Semitic anti-Zionism is not in any qualitative sense a ‘new’ anti-Semitism, nor is anti-Semitism only the hangover of an age of Jewish poverty and state oppression when it served as the ideational complement for material realities more akin to racism in the traditional model. Against that hangover hypothesis, anti-Semitism was always different. True, amid waves of Jewish immigration at the turn of the twentieth century, anti-Semitic views in Britain and America were both more widespread and more reflective of extant social hierarchies; and true too, the nightmarish memory of the Holocaust and the boom in competitors for scapegoat status in multicultural societies have dented anti-Semitism’s appeal considerably. Bigoted images of Jews are the residue of a long past. The hangover hypothesis is not simply wrong – but it is insufficient. The paranoid theory of history still contains its ounce of truth. Jewish success always was the perfect catalyst for anti-Semitic thinking. The hangover hypothesis suggests we live in an anomalous time, a time in which beliefs and their social basis are out of joint. The theory encourages a hopeful materialist teleology, in which beliefs devoid of a social function must soon die out. Alas, demarcating anti-Semitism from racism undermines that optimism, and dismally it suggests that fertile soil for anti-Semitism persists. But it also undermines the diagnosis of a ‘New Anti-Semitism’ in the work of Robert Wistrich, David Hirsch and many others, which implicitly shares in the presumption that an ‘old’ anti-Semitism was once much like most racisms. The diagnosis rests on two moves – overstating the novelty of the intellectual foundations structuring anti-Semitic anti-Zionism, while tarring anti-racist anti-Zionism with suspicions of anti-Semitism – that together (mis)identify a newly widespread problem of left-wing anti-Semitism.
There are good reasons to continue to regard anti-Semitism as a brand of right-wing thinking. Most obviously, it misreads many of capital’s victims as its devious authors. In no sense do Jewish plumbers, butchers and taxi drivers – or impoverished Hasidim in Williamsburg and Stamford Hill – possess class interests antagonistic to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ worker, and the construction of the fellow victim as villain is a familiar move of racism and other nominally anti-systemic brands of right-wing politics. Far from being universally privileged, working-class Jews face the ‘double yoke’ of poverty and bigotry: Lenin uses similar language to recent black feminists theorising intersectional oppression. Championing Marx as a ‘full-blooded Jew’, Engels wrote this of the anti-Semite in 1890:
He doesn’t even know the Jews he decries, otherwise he would be aware that, thanks to anti-Semitism in eastern Europe, and to the Spanish Inquisition in Turkey, there are here in England and in America thousands upon thousands of Jewish proletarians; and it is precisely these Jewish workers who are the worst exploited and the most poverty-stricken. In England during the past twelve months we have had three strikes by Jewish workers. Are we then expected to engage in anti-Semitism in our struggle against capital?
The second point is more fundamental. Though Jewish embourge-oisement has been one story of the last century, anti-Semitism treats oppression as culturally explicable, which is to say it roots injustice in the ethnic deformity and personal villainy of a minority rather than in the structurally ingrained logic of social relations motoring hierarchical societies. Its construction of fantasy Jews reads political interests as intractably biologically or culturally determined, where the left instead takes social positions of power and powerlessness as the ultimate arbiters of interests and so (by its belief in the possibility of human transformation through changing one’s conditions, by treating the final problem as power and not people) holds out the prospect of genuinely universal salvation inconceivable to the anti-Semitic mind. The connection linking anti-Semitism to familiar racisms also links it to other forms of antagonistic conservative politics like homophobia and fear of freemasons: all read culture as the ultimate foundation of politics, which gets the relationship precisely the wrong way round. They thus foreclose the possibility of universal emancipation from oppression by thinking some are permanently damned by their deformities and/or by limiting political aspiration to cultural purification, seeking to change the colour of our chains rather than breaking the chains altogether. This, more than the question whether popular anti-Semitism understands itself as anti-elitist or whether Jews are structurally oppressed like other racial minorities, is the key to understanding anti-Semitic ideology as a conservative fetish. It may also be racist, but the category racism is not the best way of understanding either its specificities (which don’t hold for all racisms) or its broader ideological family (which extends well beyond racism).
Finally, anti-Semitism, like all conspiracy theorising, is ultimately about providing comfortable reassurance. It tells the anti-Semite that the problems in her society do not really run very deep, that they are only the work of some small cancer to be zapped while leaving a healthy body intact. It is a mechanism for defending the fundamental rudiments of the existing social order as they come under strain. Far from merely peripheral fanaticism, anti-Semitism on this reading has always held a central place in the everyday political thought of the West: rescuing the image of civilisation by identifying its problems as really alien to it.
Latterly this has been the role of angry allegations of anti-Semitism too; by supporting Israel the West seeks to expiate its guilt for its failure to prevent the Holocaust without the challenging work of real restitution – the Jewish state was to be imposed on natives elsewhere, not founded in Bavaria – so that accusing Israel’s critics, especially in the Arab world, of that very virus that constitutes the West’s shame means shutting down discussion of the West’s own guilt and folly. Anti-Semitism is (what a relief!) a problem located elsewhere, and complicity in the Nakba to brush aside history’s guilt and found a regional policeman for empire can be helpfully whitewashed by tarnishing its critics. Accusing others of anti-Semitism serves the same social function as anti-Semitism itself, namely it diverts attention from the sickness within Christian civilisation.
This is not to suppose that anti-Semitism is everywhere a conscious strategy authored by ruling classes to deflect revolutionary anger by inventing scapegoats. That is the bad faith view of prejudice, the view attractive on the left because it shifts the blame away from the honest proletarian, and it is almost always wrong, for the same reason that Marx on ‘ideology’ is poorly translated as ‘false consciousness’. Ideological illusions constitute for Marx, as for Hegel, organic encounters with the surface ‘appearance’ of the world. They are not simply false, nor must they be planted by cunning elites. Anti-Semitism is appealing because it offers explanations for experiences of power and especially alienation that are more obvious, more intuitive than any developed social theory of capital. It is on these terms that it must be fought, understanding it grimly as a conservative form of subaltern consciousness, whose danger lies partly in providing a distorted frame through which to see the world, a frame inimical to meaningful human emancipation. It is fetishistic, as Moishe Postone warns, it militates hopelessly against assaults on social structures. Mainstream anti-anti-Semitism today generally misses this dynamic. Treating anti-Semitism simply as racism pulls analysts into a search for bigots frothing with hatred for Jews, which significantly underestimates (note: this is the opposite charge than the one usually levelled by left-wing anti-Zionists) the preponderance of anti-Semitic ways of thinking across the political spectrum, while also wrongly supposing that its danger lies exclusively in targeting Jews. It is instead a whole vision of politics, a desperately conservative vision that nonetheless finds some adherents on the Left and plenty among liberals. Think of the current American panic about Russian conspiracies, through which liberals dodge the conclusion that votes for Donald Trump suggest some fundamental malady in their social order by instead pinning the blame on Kremlin hackers: a structure of thinking just like the anti-Semitic frame. And amid fears about the rise of China, anti-Asian racism might easily morph into a total social theory, an ethnically constituted conservative articulation of anti-elitism: again, just like anti-Semitism.
The view that Zionist conspiracies emanate from one small corner of the Middle East to control all the governments of the world is a perfect illustration of this conservative bid to rescue the image of the West by making its sins into the crimes of Others, so it is concerning that such thinking can draw its adherents into the Left by virtue of shared hostility to Israel. Hostility is the only point of overlap, of course, since anti-Semitic anti-Zionism cares a great deal about Jews and only marginally if at all about the Palestinians whose quest for liberation inspires the anti-racist Left. Really, though, apparent obsessions with Jews only play a convenient role in supporting a more general image of the world, which is why anti-Semitism is not only ‘racism against Jews’.
It is no accident that a spate of attempts to theorise anti-Semitism emerged quickly in the years after the liberation of Auschwitz. Most were highly historically localised, whether in Hannah Arendt’s study of the foundation of bourgeois modernity or in the stress on later, fascist hostility to the sphere of circulation in the analyses of Adorno and Horkheimer. Significant intellectual innovations have been rarer in the years since. It has been even rarer to find analysts carrying the historicist candle to ask what anti-Semitism means under conditions of neoliberalism.
Our epoch bolsters and alters anti-Semitism. In the days of ‘There Is No Alternative’, we are all Panglossian pessimists: we live in the best of all possible worlds, and it is shit. In such times, the appeal of anti-Semitism is not as it once was, that it purports to identify a cancer easily expunged while leaving the broad structure of social relations intact. Rather, like David Icke’s lizards, the attraction of the omnipotent Jew for neoliberal anti-Semitism is that he cannot be abolished, or won’t be. Online and in conversation, anti-Semitism often arises today not in the demand for another Final Solution but as a cynical shrug directed against dreamers and radicals: ‘You won’t be able to change anything anyway,’ says the anti-Semite, ‘they will never let you.’ Frequently the identity of this ‘they’ is left unstated. It doesn’t really matter. This is still, like the anti-Semitism of old, a structure of thinking that is not really about Jews at all. As in the old model, antipathy towards Jews is only a convenient tool for sustaining broader political commitments, though here deep pessimism about the future has replaced the old attempt to salvage the image of the West. It is a seductive orientation to miserable times, and so probably a much more widespread one than surveys can detect. Additionally, just as classic models of anti-Semitism work both by regarding it as anti-modern and as constitutive of modernity, we should identify not only the nominally anti-neoliberal content of contemporary anti-Semitism but also the degree to which neoliberal ideology spurs anti-Semitism as its supportive spouse – a portrait of Jews as a closed cabal acquires additional horror at a time that worships the free competition of open markets. Together this anti-political pessimism and the hostility to Jews as a cartel constitute the embeddedness of anti-Semitism as a mode of thinking about politics under neoliberalism.
Though contemporary anti-Semitism really marks an abandonment of politics, to neoliberal technocrats it can seem that all politics is anti-Semitism. Any attempt to confront elites is immediately suspicious. There is a risk of this view in the analyses of Postone and Michael Heinrich, and it truly blossoms in the ‘anti-Deutsch’ current on the German Left, where anti-Semitism is thought to lurk behind every rallying cry against corporate corruption and greedy bankers. This generalising move obscures the centrality to anti-Semitism of imagining ethno-culturally cemented interests uniting Jewry, so that any attack at all on any individuals or groups as embodiments of power becomes suspect. It is historically predictable as the mood of a moment when thinking politically was for so long outlawed, where hostility towards concentrated wealth and power seemed the residue of a dead past.
Here we come to the deep structure underpinning the resurgence of anti-anti-Semitism as popular paranoia amid the rise of Corbyn. When after so long people complain again openly about the corruptions of finance capital, plenty can hear only thinly veiled ravings about Jewish cabals. And after decades when class was spoken about rarely and in hushed tones, it is likely that some of Corbyn’s supporters really do make sense of the critique of capital in these dismal racialised or cultural terms. Such thinking has been a consistent presence on the Left all the way back to Bakunin’s Slavophilia and Proudhon’s artisanal fetishism, and today one brand of anti-Zionism might easily slot into that canon by imagining a clique in Tel Aviv poisoning the world’s otherwise healthy body politic. Really there is a tension between contemporary anti-Semitism and politics, really today’s anti-Semites demobilise Corbynism with a weary cynicism about the possibility of change. Nonetheless, their presence only fuels this worldview that wrongly imagines a necessary connection between anti-elitism and anti-Semitism.
A recent furore over Corbyn’s 2012 defence of an anti-Semitic mural highlights all of these dynamics perfectly. That Corbyn has a good record of opposing anti-Semitism is more often asserted than demonstrated, but it is true; long before any spin doctors prevented him from roaming free, as a left-wing backbencher for decades he repeatedly added his name to parliamentary Early Day Motions expressing strong concerns about anti-Semitism, from Turkey and Malaysia to France and Italy. Why, then, did he compare a painting of hook-nosed bankers to Diego Rivera’s depictions of Lenin? His initial pre-apology defence, that he scrolled past the image without looking at it closely, is telling: the 1930s Left would likely have known immediately that ostensible anti-elitism can take reactionary forms. The briefest glance would have been sufficient to identify this mural as enemy propaganda. Now, after decades of ‘free market’ fundamentalism in which right-wing anti-capitalism has not seemed the main enemy, that old sensitivity is much reduced on the Left. The problem is not (as most angry reactions assumed) that Corbyn saw anti-Semitism and shrugged, but that he didn’t see it. It was not at that moment on his radar. Completing my point, Jewish communal bodies wrote to Corbyn and blamed his sloppiness on a whole Weltanschauung of the ‘far left’, seeing not just anti-Zionism but all class politics as tinged with an innate tendency towards anti-Semitism. They singled out the language of the ‘class enemy’ for condemnation. Here again the politics of technocratic neoliberalism more than the politics of Zionism generates panic about anti-Semitism.
As Zionism mirrored anti-Semitism in the past, so the mainstream Right mirrors anti-Semites now, sharing a distorted image of Jews as representatives of the status quo but finding new love for them on that basis, rather than objecting to it. Hence the otherwise bizarre situation where David Cameron lambasted Jeremy Corbyn as an apologist for racism at precisely the moment when the Conservative candidate for the London mayoralty was running an appallingly Islamophobic campaign. Cameron is no anti-racist, but he can be a philo-Semite, the anti-Semite who loves Jews. That thinking is now embraced by some on the far Right too. When fascist thugs invaded a socialist bookshop in London this summer, one of the terms of abuse they hurled at the staff with genuine passion was ‘Jew-haters!’ Recently, an Australian Senator called for a ‘final solution’ to immigration. When challenged on the Nazi provenance of that phrase, his party leader refused to apologise or even to deny he was a racist, but he insisted the far Right were now the most steadfast champions of Jews, because they loathe both Palestinians and Muslim migrants. This is an established pattern in France, where condemning anti-Semitism has for some become a dog-whistle to express Islamophobia. Where once Jews were Semites, now we are read in this discourse as the noblest representatives of whiteness.
That shift in some (by no means all) far-right thinking is enabled domestically by increased Jewish prosperity and integration with the white bourgeoisie, and geopolitically by Zionism. Israel is a fortress in the desert, Europe’s outpost pitted against the Arab hordes, and so Jews are like those hardy, manly Americans who once headed west to colonise new frontiers. The old Zionist aspiration to leave Europe in order to become truly European has in a miserable sense succeeded. But that success is illusory. Even its greatest cheerleaders on the European Right still require anti-Semitism as the foundation for their philo-Semitism; they treat Jews as a strange and fetishised body, abroad the macho, muscular settler, and at home in the diaspora the white woman in need of protection from brown men. This duality constitutes the New Philo-Semitism. Its anti-Semitic core involves treating Jews as a bloc to be deployed sacrificially to meet the needs of Christian civilisation: manning a colonial outpost for the West in the Middle East and serving to legitimate Islamophobia closer to home. Jews are cannon fodder for those who really matter. Those parts of the Right that now claim to defend Jews do so on this covertly anti-Semitic basis.
There is an irony in the New Anti-Anti-Semitism. Thus far, as is common in discussions of anti-Semitism today, I have concentrated only on one half of the classic anti-Semitic image of the Jew, the wealthy banker. The other half, found in sources as diverse as Nazi propaganda and Keynes’s anti-Semitic analysis of Bolshevism, is the Jewish insurgent, the Jewish trouble-maker, the revolutionary Jewish bomb-thrower pitted against Western civilisation. Trotsky was once as important as Rothschild in the anti-Semitic imagination. Where has that gone? Muslims come close to playing that role in reactionary thought today, but the awkward sense one had when watching the fracas in the Labour Party was that ‘anti-Semites’ have come to stand in for ‘Jews’ in the role of nasty conspirators taking advantage of honest Party members to spread their radical bile and pursue their partisan, dangerous agenda. Long before anyone outside the Left had even heard of Jeremy Corbyn, the BDS movement in particular and Palestinians in general played exactly this role; truly Edward Said was, as he liked to say, the ‘last Jewish intellectual’. Those who hated his stone-throwing eloquence might have screamed ‘anti-Semite!’ where once their conservative anti-intellectualism would have seen them shout ‘Jew!’ to an equally angry tune at similarly dissident thinkers.
In this context, most of those who still hate Jews no longer reason through an account of their Semitic (that is, not properly European) origins. In the current bigoted constellation Jews epitomise European power instead. ‘Anti-Semitism’ is a nineteenth century coinage, and for its association of Jews with Arabs at a moment of lurid Orientalism it should be regarded as one historical form of the phobia of Jews. It is still a live association now especially on the far Right, but this is a particular vision of Jews far from temporally coextensive with all opposition to Jews ever. That historical truth is often forgotten. Even Foucault, that great champion of the historicity of our words and concepts, speaks freely, in the lectures collected as Society Must Be Defended, of ‘anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages’. ‘Jewophobia’ should be the broader term instead: not ‘Jew-hatred’ or ‘-baiting’ since we should be attentive to unconscious fears and not just zealous loathing, and not ‘Judeophobia’ or ‘anti-Judaism’ (David Nirenberg’s term) since religion has often been only incidental in the Jewophobe’s image of the Jew.
There have been too few attempts on the left of late to derive a theoretical framework capable of explaining the persistence and even the resurgence of anti-Semitism while also accounting for the preoccupation with it among representatives of a political mainstream usually more relaxed about bigotry. Those are two phenomena that coexist – the reappearance of anti-Semitism from the Hungarian state to some in the British Labour Party and, in Britain, a media campaign out of all proportion with the facts – and we lack efforts beyond conspiracy theories to explain either one of these truths, let alone both of them. The preliminary suggestion offered here is that anti-Semitism and popular paranoia about anti-Semitism are twin demons that surge amid a general discursive shift from assumptions of neoliberal hegemony to talk of the apparent failure of neoliberal politics. That is the world we inhabit in the delayed aftermath of 2008. The demolition of those institutions and cultures once capable of reproducing left-wing consciousness has been so stark in some parts of the world that people grasp for cruder, more base and above all more pessimistic languages of ostensible anti-elitism. Meanwhile, the double nature of modern anti-Semitism makes it a perfect fear for the same crowd who worry about ‘populism’, that ideological horseshoe. Anti-Semitism is the unacceptable anti-elitism, so seeing it everywhere is the technocrat’s terrified coding of the reappearance of antagonistic politics. At the same time, the anti-Semitic mode of political theory (which imagines small cabals seeking to derail the good intentions of honest folk) can be deployed to read the return of the Left as the return of those dreaded Trotskys – which frame, of course, really did appear openly at the start of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise. The existence of Jewophobia is not a sufficient condition for liberal and conservative panic about it, but the same ructions might just explain both today.
Semites at War
It takes considerable temerity to sit atop a Bantustan with immense military might, suffocating Gaza, sunbathing in Tel Aviv, living in the stolen homes of refugees, and then to play the victim, to silence the battered and the bruised with stern warnings that objecting to their slaughter might make them racists. That is effectively the claim of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which appends to a reasonable definition of anti-Semitism a list of ‘examples’ including the claim that Israel is a racist state, or that Jews have no right to a state of our own on other people’s land. That amounts to intellectual blackmail. When one Palestinian academic wrote in the Guardian last year that she remembers the Balfour declaration as a colonial crime, the Israeli ambassador swiftly rebuked her that to mourn the dispossession of her family made her an anti-Semite. Such intellectual contortions are endemic. Labour’s (Corbyn’s!) Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry opines that nobody who seeks the dissolution of the Israeli state should be welcome in the Labour Party – regardless of the injustices built into their foundation, states have a right to exist in perpetuity, apparently, which is why the end of East Germany, Rhodesia and South Vietnam must all be mourned on principle in the Thornberry household. One popular formulation insists on the legitimacy of criticising individual Israeli policies or governments, but not the existence of the state itself, which rules out the possibility that the Zionist state is, like all colonial fortresses in the wilderness, corrupt to its core. Readers might disagree with that position, but there is nothing necessarily anti-Semitic about it. Even those who would defend the legitimacy of anti-Zionism sometimes worry about it ‘spilling over’ into anti-Semitism, which is completely the wrong language. The most militant, extreme, violent anti-Zionism has nothing but hatred for anti-Semitism if its opposition to the Israeli state stems from an authentically anti-colonial analysis that seeks to end regimes of dispossession and discrimination in the name of human equality. This is the anti-Zionism that cares not at all about the ethnic or religious properties of the coloniser, who is opposed simply for being a coloniser. And the softest, quietest, most moderate anti-Zionism can be anti-Semitic where it involves any sense at all that Jewishness is part of Israel’s sickness, part of the explanation for its violence.
There are different reasons for seeking to learn an antagonist’s narratives. Zionists should learn the story of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing that founded their state, because the first step in departing from Zionism lies in understanding that the settler-colonial reality in which they live is underpinned by violence. Violence was the tool to establish by murder and exile a Jewish majority for their Jewish state, which has since been locked into violent paranoia about ‘demographic threats’ and the rage of the wronged. Zionists share with anti-Semites a bipolar worldview that says both, ‘I am unimaginably stronger than my enemy, more civilised and mightier than him’, and also, ‘My enemy might topple me at any moment’. Some know this and shrug, but plenty more, especially among the young, now delude themselves that they live – as that 2016 MPs’ report and the IHRA code confidently assert – in just another ‘liberal democracy’. Anti-Zionists should learn the story of the Holocaust as the summit of aeons of persecution, not to rescue them from their anti-Zionism but for a host of other reasons, combatting anti-Semitism among them. It is important to understand the basis of paranoia, the avalanche of brutality from which violence seemed the only escape to very many Jews. It is important to know that Zionists do not kill Palestinians because they were born with an inhuman blood lust. In quite a different sense from Sartre’s, the anti-Semite really did succeed in (re-)creating the Jew, and the turn to Zionism is a chapter in the tragic history of anti-Semitism. Palestinians are, as Said had it, the ‘victims of the victims’.
Against that backdrop, drawing an equivalence between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism makes a kind of sense. If Israel is the last line of defence for world Jewry against a virus that has proven itself to be practically ineradicable, seeking to demolish Israel is a terrifying prospect. However tragic, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are thus honestly and intricately entangled for many Jews for whom Zionism has come to constitute an aspect of Jewish identity. Equally (and this is what seems most bizarre when viewed from beyond this paradigm), it matters little how much someone hates Jews at home as long as they support the Israeli state; anti-Semitism will be with us in Poland and in New York forever, so that the really crucial test of Jewish survival is not one’s contribution to battling hatreds there but only one’s support for the garrison-state that promises to keep Jews safe when the camps reopen. Netanyahu embraces Victor Orban, whose supporters plaster Hungarian cities with anti-Semitic caricatures of George Soros. Netanyahu’s son enthusiastically shares such anti-Semitic images online – for championing even the most limited Palestinian rights, Soros is objectively more of an anti-Semite than Orban. He attacks the collective Jew, in this view, the most important Jew of all. Both Zionists and anti-Zionists frequently engage in a brand of projection where each assumes that the vision they hold of the Israeli state must be the vision in the minds of their opponents too, so that anti-Zionists imagine Zionists defending a killing machine and think them inhuman, while Zionists imagine anti-Zionists hating the revival of Jewish pride and strength and so they see only anti-Semites in disguise. That projective anti-identification sits at the core of the New Anti-Anti-Semitism. Both acts of projection are misguided, even as the anti-Zionist image of the Israeli state is the truer one. Zionists are mistaken, but understanding the stories that they weave for themselves is crucial in accounting for how they came to be that way.
The task of understanding is made infinitely more difficult by the prevalence today of a particular way of talking about politics, which Joan Scott brilliantly scorned long ago as ‘the evidence of experience’. This is the premium on ‘lived experience’, which transforms the contours of this debate. No longer can a Palestinian student flying their national flag explain to a Jewish roommate that she is mistaken to see in that gesture a threatening instance of anti-Semitism: if young Jews brought up in a sea of Zionism and paranoia feel that way, it is politically unconscionable to ‘speak over’ their feelings. On this view, falsity stops being false in any epistemologically and politically meaningful sense once it acquires popular force, once it becomes a widespread falsity. This is not today a burning problem in the diagnosis of most forms of racism, but in the case of anti-Semitism there exists an apparatus (the Israeli state) invested in utilising images of its own victimhood to obscure the realities of its oppressive encounter with an indigenous population, so the work of deconstructing misguided conceptions of anti-Semitism and deriving better ones is an especially important task, crippled by the contemporary fetish for ‘experience’. Experience, Scott highlighted, is always processed through ideological lenses that order and make sense of those experiences in particular ways. The task of critique sometimes lies in attacking these lenses.
Paranoia pervades all sides now. Both those launching accusations of anti-Semitism and those sceptical of the charges tend to see conspiracies against them behind every corner. The two sides make perfect bedfellows. The truth is that everyone agrees that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are the same thing, and everyone is wrong. Supporters of the Israeli state, including those who claim to oppose the conflation, in practice raise suspicious eyebrows on encountering dedicated activists opposed to the existence of their sectarian state in Palestine. Opponents of the Israeli state, including those who rush to denounce anti-Semitism, see Zionist plots behind most such allegations and usually insist that anti-Semitism is only a miniscule problem in Western societies today – at least outside the far-Right. By their choices of emphasis, these partisans risk either tarnishing decent critics of Israel or excusing anti-Semites. These are the risks that they are prepared to take. One side thus reveals its casualness about anti-Semitism as a problem to be fought; the other reveals its casualness about the crimes of the Israeli state as an equally urgent challenge. This essay has sought to chart a different course, to see anti-Semitism both as endemic and as frequently misidentified, to see anti-Zionism both as potentially anti-Semitic and (in its progressive form) as our only hope.
One lesson of this miserable debate has been how many people are rendered invisible by the discursive construction of ‘reality’. Reams of evidence suggest bigots and bigotries flourish across British society, and yet so easily a sketch is drawn in which prejudice is a crisis on the radical Left alone; in an active site of colonial violence, the dispossession of a people is an ongoing process, and yet calling Israel a racist endeavour is to be outlawed as itself racist. These are times to remind oneself that slavery was once bourgeois common-sense, that the world prayed for twelve children in a Thai cave this summer while hundreds of children drowned barely noticed in the Mediterranean. This saga has been a study in the selective blindness that makes hierarchy possible everywhere. Some of us are sustained by the thought of days when illusions and delusions now ubiquitous will be scorned just as easily as the opulence of pharaohs and the myths of their magicians. If ever that happens, people of the future will know that our prehistoric magical thinking took many forms – some saw this planet of plunder as a happy village ‘market’ while others satiated their need to put faces to their fears by imagining that tight-knit cabals held complete control over what were really sprawling structures of domination, impersonal logics of power. It is up to us now whether such unborn historians will look back on today’s Left as the few in their time who rejected magical thinking, or as just another variant of it. The battle over anti-Semitism comes down to that: this time like every time before, much more than the fate of we Jews is at stake.
 I owe this distinction to Chloe Howe Haralambous.
 The definition of racism offered by the British Sociological Association is a good example of anti-Semitism’s singularity: ‘An ideology, structure and process in which inequalities inherent in the wider social structure are related in a deterministic way to biological and cultural factors attributed to those who are seen as a different ‘race’ or ethnic group.’ Only by reading that against the grain to switch its unspoken assumption of inferiority (‘inequalities’) for superiority can it be made to apply here, though the possibility of performing such a reading shows we need not abandon a materialist view of racism when engaging anti-Semitism.
Barnaby Raine is a doctoral student at Columbia University, where he studies modern European political thought.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.