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Recentring the State: A Response to Barnaby Raine on Anti-Semitism

by | December 17, 2019

This piece was first published in print in Salvage #7: Towards the Proletarocene. It is a response to Barnaby Raine’s piece Jewophobia, which was published in Salvage #6: Evidence of Things Not Seen. The latest issue can be ordered individually here, or as part of a subscription, available here. Where our back issues are still available, they can be ordered here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and some online content, including PDFs of all of our back issues, is only available to subscribers

With ongoing smear campaigns against the Palestine solidarity movement as organised as they are cynical, and with the genuine growth of anti-Semitic violence – alongside growing racist attacks across the board – grappling seriously with anti-Semitism is of great strategic importance.

In the last issue of Salvage, Barnaby Raine’s raised important questions about the contemporary nature of anti-Semitism in his article ‘Jewophobia’. His contribution in this journal and elsewhere has been valuable given that the debate on anti-Semitism has been taken over by the Right and far Right, which attempts to discredit anti-Zionism or solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian liberation, whilst simultaneously masking its own racism – including against Jewish people.

Much discussion of contemporary anti-Semitism accepts a framing that suggests that the problem somehow emanates from Palestine. International solidarity movements with the Palestinian struggle for liberation, and by extension the Palestinian people themselves, are repeatedly identified as the source of growing anti-Semitism in the West – and this despite all reliable data pointing to the far Right as the overwhelmingly dominant source of anti-Semitic acts. This framing obstructs any understanding of the specific place of Jewish communities in our own societies, the centrality of anti-Semitism in the historic construction of Western states, or the connection between the contemporary growth of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism (primarily Islamophobia). At the same time, it allows discussions relating to Zionism to be framed almost exclusively as relating to Jews in the West, rather than to the ongoing settler-colonial dispossession, murder, and displacement of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli state and its supporters. This erasure of Palestinians from discussions relating to Zionism touches, as we shall see, on the very nature of present-day anti-Semitism. This framing is then an assault on effective anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles and campaigns.

We lack a clear and precise analysis of contemporary anti-Semitism, its origin and social role, particularly with respect to the West. Raine’s work opens up such discussion on the Left, standing in trenchant opposition to the ongoing settler-colonial project in Palestine, and focusing on the specific social role of anti-Semitism today. Crucially, Raine investigates processes of identity formation and racialisation, illustrating how contemporary anti-Semitism has morphed under the neoliberal assault, with its foreclosure of alternative horizons, and today reinforces demobilisation of social struggle through conspiracy theories featuring unchallengeable, secret cabals.

Raine also touches on how the conflation of Judaism and Jewish identities with Zionism, as ideology and political movement, contributes to constructing a new Jewish identity in which Jews are cast as defenders of the Western world at home and abroad – a construction that undermines rather than protecting Jewish populations. This is not necessarily a new observation (indeed, it has been central to anti-Zionist Jewish politics from the late nineteenth century) but it is well worth stressing today once more.

Such a focus allows us to make sense of a world in which figures on the (far) right defend Israel, are celebrated by Zionist organisations as friends of the Jewish people, while simultaneously collaborating with, or actively encouraging, anti-Semitic or even fascist political actors at home. Consider, for example, the British Tory government’s close relationship with Israel and simultaneous development of close political ties with the openly anti-Semitic government in Hungary, or Donald Trump’s courting of both hard-line Zionists and the white-supremacist and anti-Semitic right. It also helps clarify how the historically anti-Semitic far Right across the Western world has, in recent years, reinvented itself as pro-Israel, a change starkly illustrated in the apparent generational divide within the Le Pen clan.

For all the strengths of Raine’s essay, there are shortcomings. Most problematically, Raine’s analysis of anti-Semitism overemphasises the phenomenon’s specificity vis-à-vis other forms of oppression, while failing to identify how contemporary anti-Semitism emerges and is reproduced. His piece gives a broad overview of the ways in which anti-Semitism operates and manifests, but does not identify its structural origins. This failure tends towards a totalising view of contemporary anti-Semitism, and one which leaves little room for action by the same Left he criticises for failing to understand the current conjecture.

In fact, it seems that it is partly this lacuna that leads Raine to admonish the Left for misunderstanding what he sees as its own variation of anti-Semitism: if the construction of racism has no identifiable origin, then perhaps it might be generated by all social actors, the (often small and institutionally marginalised) Left included. His approach fails to situate anti-Semitism in relation to other forms of racism, reproducing the silo-approach of much contemporary identity politics – on both the Left and the Right – which insists on treating every form of oppression as fundamentally distinct and specific.

My analysis certainly does not contradict Raine’s in toto – in fact it resonates with a great deal of the latter parts of his piece. However, key to my analysis – and lacking in Raine’s – is the state. In keeping the state at the centre, not only can this account rigorously historicise the emergence of contemporary anti-Semitism, it also indicates strategic directions.

A new reading of Anti-Semitism?

In his piece, Raine’s position is that anti-Semitism – in fact he often uses the word Jewophobia as a broader category, encompassing different historical expressions of hatred of Jews, including anti-Semitism – should not primarily be understood as racism. Instead, he theorises it as a ‘conservative fetish’ or, more specifically, ‘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’. Following from this, he argues that the extent of real anti-Semitic feeling across society is likely much broader than is generally imagined. Anti-Semitism, for Raine, is primarily about its social function in providing an alternative reading of the world’s woes, that does not threaten the status quo or real structures of exploitation and oppression, but instead projects onto Jews responsibility for the violence and poverty of the world.

There is much to agree with here. It is undeniable that conspiracy theories about Rothschilds running the world, secret cabals forcing governments to act against their own interests, or the supposed Jewish control over finance, entertainment, and media function as effective ideological tools to detract from real ruling-class power. If the problem is an unseen, ‘different’ and unaccountable elite, real structures of control and the system as a whole are off the hook.

But Raine does not stop there. He also appears to understand this as qualitatively different from other forms of oppression. Indeed, despite recognising that other ideological constructions play this role – consider current liberal obsessions with Russian hackers or anti-Asian racism parading as principled opposition to China’s rise – Raine claims that

[t]his 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’.

Raine’s belief of this fundamental difference – that anti-Semitism is never only racism, unlike most of its ‘more patronising’ bedfellows – is never sufficiently explained, nor why the construction of Jews as ‘superior’ marks it out. Why is this different from, let’s say, the way South Asian communities within the former British colonies in the African continent are constructed as intelligent, cunning and out to destroy local economies? Does this not also echo strongly with other so-called model minorities[1], such as East-Asians in North America, who are counterposed to other racialised minorities, and whose supposed industrious character, international networks, and cunning poses a threat of future domination? It seems that what these forms of racism have in common are the (real or imagined) minority status, international networks, and localisation in trade and finance of its victims.

In addition, it seems, that it is always the role of oppression to construct certain groups of – already structurally weaker – people as the physical embodiment of specific social ills. In that sense while East Asian, Jewish, or South Asian communities might be constructed as the embodiment of financial inequality, other groups are blamed for other issues: migrants destroy the welfare state, women push men out of the workplace, black people undermine the quality of education, Muslims spread violence – to name but a few.

The state constructs populations that become identified as embodied social problems; it erects them as shields behind which ruling class power can hide. The role of analysis is to understand how these identities are constructed, imposed, and why they are effective enough to gain a life of their own within society. Crucially, these different forms of oppression are also connected and constructed simultaneously by the state. The specific racialisation of East Asian communities in the US for example, plays an important role in justifying the economic deprivation of African American communities as victims not of structural racism or capitalist exploitation, but from the former’s cunning economic strategies. In addition, it then also works as a justifying mechanism for state violence to supposedly protect different racialised and oppressed communities from one another.

This leads to the second issue with Raine’s analysis. He never makes clear his explanation for where modern anti-Semitism originates, what structures give rise to it, and therefore – by extension – where one should focus energy to challenge it. The very movement between anti-Semitism and Jewophobia throughout the piece captures something of this lacuna. At times, Raine seems to describe a cultural phenomenon that he feels always already exists, and is not in fact constructed and imposed. As such he describes it variously as an ‘unconscious phobia of Jews’, ‘a structure of thinking’, a form of ‘anti-political pessimism’, and as a ‘discourse’, never rooting these in anything structurally identifiable.  This leaves the reader with the impression that anti-Semitism can be explained by means of mere ideas, or via culture, rather than requiring a material explanation and history.

This nebulous and implied analysis of anti-Semitism, as a primarily ideological rather than material relation, also has the curious consequence of giving weight to the Rabbinical view that sees violence directed against the Jewish people as emanating from the jealousy of the gentile world of their success and blessings. Raine writes, for example that ‘[i]t is true that times of Jewish security and prosperity have often summoned anti-Semitism, which tells us something important about the anti-Semitic worldview’. What that ‘something important’ is, is not spelled out. And again: ‘[t]he paranoid theory of history still contains its ounce of truth. Jewish success always was the perfect catalyst for anti-Semitic thinking’. Anti-Semitism, by this account, does not seem to originate in the social contradictions of the society where it emerges from, but, at least in part, in Jewish success. An idea which would be surprising to the European Jewish masses of the nineteenth and early twentieth century to say the least. It over-emphasises anti-Semitism as a spontaneous grassroots form of hatred amongst the people, rather than identify elite and structural processes – much like contemporary discussion of ‘white working-class’ racism against migrants.

Raine then paints a picture of anti-Semitism as a reactionary form of subaltern consciousness, which is fundamentally distinct from other forms of oppression. In addition, it is not located in clearly identifiable material relations or structural processes. Instead, it appears in Raine’s analysis as a modern form of an idealist and a-historical Jewophobia. With this lack of historical perspective, the analysis presented in his piece is not without parallels to Afro-Pessimist understanding of anti-Blackness as universal and fundamentally distinct from other racializing mechanisms.

The post-WWII state and the ‘new Jew’

It was the early Zionist movement’s claim that by settling Palestine and constructing agrarian communities of European Jews, it would create a so-called ‘new Jew’. This ‘new Jew’ would cast aside what Zionists imagined to be the traits of diasporic life, and would be reborn through labour and productive contact with the land. The imagery of the new Jew as muscular, male, and both a worker and a soldier became ubiquitous in Zionist propaganda. It represented the ethos of the movement. It aimed at casting off the pariah, the weak, the parasitic, and replacing it with the conquering, the productive, and the strong. Aside from highlighting how deeply Zionism had integrated the caricatures of European anti-Semitism, it also tells an important story about its goal: the construction of a settler colonial state in Palestine was aimed at joining the European family of nations and ‘normalising’ the Jewish people in a way neither the Haskala’s assimilation, or the radicals’ revolutionary struggles could. Yet, it was not in Palestine, but in the heart of the Western world, that the identification of Jews would change drastically in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide and the creation of the Israeli state through the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

Indeed, after WWII a double process took place that fundamentally transformed the way Jewish populations in the West were understood and racialised, as I have argued at greater length in ‘Judaism, Zionism, and the Nazi Genocide’, in Historical Materialism. If this process led to the outcome that Raine describes, it is essential to inscribe it within a series of specific state-led processes. Indeed, doing so helps making sense of current political developments, while also clarifying where activists should focus their work.

On the one hand, the Nazi genocide came to play a central role in the West’s projection of self from the 1960s onwards. A specific, whitewashed version of the Holocaust – in which European anti-Semitism, its continuities with colonial racial ideologies and practices, and western support for Hitler against the threat of Bolshevism, were silenced – became a central way in which Western states narrated their own recent past. In an increasingly decolonised world, where they were forced to reckon with the horrors of colonialism abroad, and where their oppressive and exploitative treatment of the descendants of the formerly colonised at home was increasingly challenged by growing anti-racist movements, the Holocaust and its remembrance became a way for Western nations to present themselves as having changed, having learned the lessons of history, and having graduated to the status of committed anti-racism. The most striking gap between rhetoric and practice in this respect, is the annual marking by Western states of Holocaust remembrance and celebrating German reparations as crucial aspects of accounting for and repairing the crimes of the past, while continuing to refuse to acknowledge (let alone atone for and repair) the full-extend (and contemporary relevance) of human, cultural, and material destruction wrought by their colonial regimes and slave trading economies across the Global South.

Moreover, the fact that this remembrance was, at the very least, unwilling to recognise the depth of active support for the Nazis and the widespread anti-Semitism within European and North American ruling classes is very telling about the limited nature of this process. It also helps make sense of current events, where Macron can celebrate Marshal Petain’s role in leading France to victory in WWI or British pundits can react with outrage to the students who occupied a Churchill themed café in London, without either men’s racism or anti-Semitism getting in the way of the national narrative of pride and memory. In his excellent The End of Jewish Modernity, Enzo Traverso argues that the commemoration of the Holocaust has become central to Western nation’s civic religions. It has become a cornerstone of their image of self – as liberal, egalitarian, and just – conveniently avoiding structural changes and a broader reckoning with the real history of Western power across the world, of which Jews as well as formerly colonised and enslaved people bore the brunt. Aimé Césaire, the father of the Negritude movement, already pointed out in the 1950s that Nazism could not be understood without being re-inscribed in the global history of European colonisation.

This process of re-directed recognition went hand in hand with the increasingly central role played by Israel in Western foreign policy in the Middle East. In fact, recognition of the horrors of the Nazi genocide was mobilised to justify and explain the military, economic, and diplomatic support to Israel and – by extension – Western foreign policy in the region. It continues to play this role today. It is bitterly significant that the German state was allowed to ‘repay’ the Jewish people through financial and military deals with Israel, helping the young state expand its control over land and intensify its exclusion of its indigenous inhabitants, while Holocaust survivors continued to live in poverty and isolation both in Europe and Israel.

Simultaneously, it became clear to the United States, and by extension the rest of the Western world, that Nasser’s Egypt and other Arab nationalist governments would not join Washington in its efforts to contain the USSR. They then turned fully towards supporting Israel against these regimes. The 1967 war sealed this alliance and made Israel central to US strategy in the region, first in order to defeat Arab nationalist states militarily, and then later to impose their political and economic integration into its sphere of influence. This relationship continues to this day through economic deals signed across the Middle East and North Africa, in which normalisation with Israel continues to be a central way for the US to institutionalise the region’s regimes’ subservience to its rule (see for example Adam Hanieh’s excellent discussion of this process in his Lineages of Revolt).

Jewish people, in the process, found themselves increasingly catapulted out of the position of being essentialised as a population living at the margins of the nation state and identified with communist revolution, and essentialised instead as the gatekeepers of Western legitimacy at home and abroad. They were increasingly cast, by Western states, as the defenders of the legitimacy of the Western world when facing the Global South, as well as Black and Asian populations at home. Jews became the shield behind which the Western states hid when faced with demands of anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements.

This change was highly attractive to the leadership of an oppressed community that saw in this new paradigm a route towards integration and acceptance within elite circles, which had remained, until then, closed off to them. It is striking for example that it is in the early to mid-1970s that AIPAC became a major player in US politics – that is after the US has become Israel’s key imperial sponsor.  Norman Finkelstein, in his Knowing too Much, points out that the official Jewish leadership in the US became attached to Zionism in the post 1967 period, because it was a way to integrate into the American political elite. They therefore become Zionists as loyal American citizens, rather than as separatist Jewish organisations. Simultaneously, a new cultural image of the ‘tough Jew’ emerged in American life.  Echoing the ‘new Jew’ of the Zionist movement in pre-1948 Palestine, it focussed on Jewish gangsters, occupying soldiers, and the right for the modern Jew, in the words of Rich Cohen, ‘to be a bully’.

This logic, which understands liberation as based on closeness to state-power rather than through the transformation of existing power structures, so common amongst the elites of oppressed communities, is strikingly applicable to the official Muslim institutions today. However, much like its Jewish counterpart in the 1920s and 1930s it has little enticing to bring to the table for the vast majority of the community under attack. David Rosenberg’s brilliant Battle for the East End shows how the Board of Deputies’ response to growing anti-Semitism in pre-War Britain was one focussed on respectability and a desperate attempt to win favour with those (often anti-Semites) in power. As such the militant responses by Jewish activists who (successfully) organised mass resistance against the British Union of Fascists in the streets were seen as a threat to that strategy. This tension continues to have important ramifications today.

While structurally Jewish life has changed considerably – Jews are no longer structurally discriminated against in socio-economic terms – the focus on closeness to state power by community leaders continues to put their base at risk. Indeed, it normalises the narratives that equate Jews and Zionism/Israel, participates in the state-led strategy of pitting Jews against other racialised groups (primarily Muslims), and closes its eyes on ruling class normalisation of anti-Semitism. The refusal of the BoD in Britain for example to challenge the Conservative government’s normalisation of fascist leaders in Hungary or Johnson’s close ties with Bannon, or the defence by prominent Jewish organisations in the US of Trump are powerful examples of this tendency.

This is important because what this analysis of the changing racialization of Jews in the West does, is avoid limiting itself to a quasi-conspiratorial approach, which obsesses over the behaviour of the leadership of Zionist Jewish organisations (see for example The Israel Lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt), nor does it locate anti-Semitism within ill-defined narrative processes. Instead it reflects on the structures of the state that have created the current political logic within which those organisations operate. It is the change in their states’ strategy – at home and abroad – that has led to a change of status of Jewish people in the West, rather than the other way around. Ironically, this makes their newly acquired status precarious and dependent on the continuation of the current political order.

It helps to make sense of why the assault on the Corbyn-led Labour Party or on the Palestine solidarity movement, on the basis of its supposed institutionally anti-Semitic nature (despite continuous failure to evince anything beyond anecdotal evidence for this claim) has been so effective, because it plays into a narrative which has been central to the policies of Western governments for decades. Jewish communities are only extended access to limited assimilation by the state when it identifies them as extensions of Zionism and/or Israel. Therefore, they can also be used as shields behind which the state hides when Zionism and/or Israel are threatened. Similarly, when Jewish groups or individuals reject Zionism, the state can ignore them, as they do not fit the assimilationist mould.

The question is not whether there has been a concerted effort to attack on these fronts, which has involved the Israel lobby. This much is evident and has been documented extensively, including on camera by Al-Jazeera ‘The Lobby’ documentaries in both the US and the UK. Nor is the question whether some have engaged in good fate in those campaigns. They undoubtedly have. The question instead is about the effectiveness of these campaigns. Its success should not be laid at the door of the lobby itself and its supposed extraordinary power – with all the worrying undertones that come with it – but understood as rooted in the fact that the attack cleaves in the same political direction as the ideology of Western states: mobilise Jewish populations as shields behind which to hide Western crimes and racism at home and abroad. This is the nature of modern anti-Semitism. It is on this basis that it should be fought.

This approach also helps make sense of how governments in France, Britain, or the US – amongst others – simultaneously move to criminalise Palestine solidarity activism (all three states have taken steps to outlaw BDS, and Macron has recently announced his desire to legally equate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism) under the guise of protecting Jewish communities at home, while simultaneously normalising the anti-Semitic far-right. All three governments entertain, for example, friendly relations with the openly anti-Semitic government of Hungary. In the UK, it is particularly worrying that Boris Johnson has close ties with the anti-Semitic Steve Bannon, specifically in the latter’s attempts to unify the European far-right, while presenting himself as a friend and protector of the Jewish people.

The burden of protecting Western states is pushed onto Jewish communities. The ‘new Jew’ so desired by the early Zionist movement has emerged in the West. He (he is always a he) is constructed as a defender of the state and the West’s interests in the Middle East. He is counterpoised to racialised communities at home who fight for their political liberation. In the process, Jewish communities, as well as the racialised groups they are pitted against by state policy – Muslims and Palestinians primarily – are continuously put in danger in the process. It is therefore not surprising that there is such a strong victimising narrative emerging from Zionist circles. This is not only a political strategy by pro-Israeli organisation. It is also a reality. Ironically, by drawing Jewish communities nearer to the state and constructing them as an extension of their policies, Western states are laying down the basis for the victimisation of Jewish communities.

Bringing Back Political Agency

David Feldman and Brendan McGeever of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism have repeatedly observed, in the public ‘debates’ of recent months, a split between the struggle against anti-Semitism and the wider anti-racist movement. They have not, however, provided a plausible explanation for this crucial observation (though in fact in one article – which they inexplicably chose to publish in the Israeli press – they seem to point the finger of blame for this at the British anti-racist movement).

The foregoing analysis might go some way to addressing this, and point to a possible direction to challenge it.

The contemporary struggle against anti-Semitism cannot be waged without the state in its focus, nor can it be effective without demanding that the fate of Jewish communities be disentangled from Western states, their foreign policy and the continuation of Israeli settler-colonialism. It must be a unitary struggle against the racialisation of all communities, through which the murderous history of the West can be acknowledged, and the ongoing structures of oppression rooted in this past can be dismantled – to the benefit of all oppressed communities. This includes Jews, who still find themselves collectively defined and identified by the state – to their detriment – in the ways laid out above. In this sense, not only is anti-Zionism not in contradiction with the struggle against anti-Semitism, as our rulers would have us believe, but it is inextricable from it. No one is free, as the saying goes, until we all are.

While the ‘official’ voices of the Jewish community can often make it seem like this strategy is an impossibility, a flurry of Jewish groups – from Jewish Voice for Peace and the more recent ‘Never Again is Now’ movement in the US, to the Jewish Network for Palestinians and Jewdas in the UK, among many others – have already started making it a reality. Similarly, every major poll within the Jewish population in the West shows a growing disengagement from Israel amongst young Jews. The task of the Left is to intensify its opposition to the colonisation of Palestine, to the violence meted out against black, Muslim, migrant, and all other racialised peoples. It simultaneously needs to understand that the state’s attempt to counterpose Jewish people to these struggles is inextricable from the contemporary nature of anti-Semitism. It must be fought relentlessly. To do so effectively however, those struggling must identify the state as their target and mobilise accordingly.

While much of the historical focus in analyses of anti-Semitism is on Eastern and Central Europe – and for good reason given the specific history of European states with Ashkenazi Jewish communities and their diaspora – there is work to be done on the history of Jewish communities’ relation with Europe in colonial contexts. It is striking for example that all the while oppressing Jews at home, the French state granted citizenship to Jewish Algerians, who were thereby given access to French education, better employment opportunities, and semi-integration into colonial society. In so doing, it constructed an intermediary community between itself and the ‘indigenes’ that could be erected as a shield behind which it could hide. The failure of communist and nationalist activists to win over Jewish Algerians to the project of building an independent Algerian state and to abandon their inclusion into the French state led to the effective destruction, through exile, of the Algerian Jewish community. It also contributed to the emergence of a very limited vision of the identity of the newly independent Algerian state, something that remains a major issue today for non-Arabs and non-Muslims in the country. This state of affairs resonates strongly with the present analysis of contemporary anti-Semitism offered in this article. It also serves as a reminder of the strategic importance of identifying state strategies and structures of identification effectively, in order to lead successful, unifying, liberation struggles from below.


[1]In fact, the nineteenth century French critic of emerging capitalism and raving anti-Semite Charles Fourier identified the Chinese people as equally depraved and dangerous to civilisation as the Jews.