Home > Society > Race and racism > Four myths about antisemitism

Four myths about antisemitism

Antisemitism is a growing threat. Understanding it is a matter of urgency for everybody, writes Barnaby Raine

9 to 11 minute read

Two white men in suits shake hands while sitting on yellow chairs

With eleven dead in Pittsburgh, the view that antisemitism is only a marginal feature of our era should find no heed. Debates around it can no longer devolve into the British media’s usual farce, which sees endless commentators beat their chests with scarcely a mention made of any actual data on the subject. Understanding it is a matter of urgency. But America’s first reactions to the murders confirmed the misery of our condition.

Kneejerk calls for gun control or the death penalty highlighted how far liberals and conservatives have taken for granted that their country breeds killing. And so they seek repressive fixes, and avoid asking why some of their citizens shoot others – preferring to focus on the question of how. When they started to speak of antisemitism, they seemed just as hopelessly lost.

Grotesquely, Netanyahu has broadcast his condemnations of antisemitism, despite befriending its parents and advocates from Orban in Hungary to Trump in the USA. Liberals leapt to speak of the fringe far-right as the root of the problem, obscuring the possibility that furious violence might be born out of the social order to which they are broadly loyal.

We are so very bad at thinking about antisemitism, and not by accident; asking where it comes from and how it prospers would mean asking questions of our social structure that political moderates of all stripes prefer to avoid. It is time to confront the absurdities that defined this summer’s British panic – on all sides.

1. Antisemitism is mostly a problem of the far Right

The Right’s thinking is stuffed full of mythologies – but the Left makes some use of them too. As antisemitism is reduced to a cheap, partisan slanging match, the Left’s myth of choice faces allegations of antisemitism in its ranks with retorts like, ‘why are you looking at us, bigotry obviously prospers above all on the Right!’

Aside from its deplorable defensiveness, its refusal to grapple with problems close to home, this response is tellingly out of date. It fails to reckon with a truth obscured in Charlottesville and in Pittsburgh, which is that passionate condemnations of antisemitism are common on much of the Right today.

The interesting question is why the Conservative Party, which still thinks Muslims too threatening to occupy high office in London, now expresses its horror at antisemitism and its firmness in defending Jews. Why are we the only historically loathed demographic now supposedly in favour on the Right?

Why are Jews the only historically loathed demographic now in favour on the Right? Because for some racists, we have become white

The answer is that Jews have become white in the view of some racists. That is relatively new. Jews were once identified so intuitively with non-Europeans that we were called ‘Semites’ beginning in the late nineteenth-century. Europe thinks of us as its outsourced colonists in the Middle East, (as anyone who watches Eurovision knows very well) – and back in the metropole we are read as wealthy, successful targets of Muslim rage (think of the outpouring of sympathy that followed 2015’s attack on a Paris kosher supermarket, which went with the murders at Charlie Hebdo).

In that context, some on the Left might buy into this Right-wing picture. Consciously or not, they might imagine Jews as a transnational ‘people-class’ coterminous with all the violence of global white power.   

2. Antisemitism is mostly a problem of the far Left

The easy identification of Jews with whiteness is poor thinking. Once one understands that to see America as Israel’s puppet is to think in reverse, the antisemitic underpinnings of contemporary right-wing philo-Semitism seem a little clearer: from Palestine to Paris, Jews are sacrificial lambs for the protection of Christian civilisation. That is the structural antisemitism of our epoch, so its invisibility ought to interest us.

Take the words of Marie van der Zyl, head of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, for whom ‘The Tories have always shown themselves to be friends to the Jewish community’. Always? Really? This was the Party that long ago introduced the first anti-immigrant legislation in British history in a bid to keep out Jews, and just weeks after her statement van der Zyl was forced to condemn the Tories for breaking ranks in the European Parliament and refusing to join other MEPs in condemning Hungary’s antisemitic leader Viktor Orban.

How the Left came to be constructed in the popular imagination in Britain as the only home of antisemitism is a question worth probing seriously and thoughtfully. Much of the answer lies in a widespread phobia of politics itself: of antagonism, of anti-elitism.

Liberalism’s old anti-democratic instincts are today revived in much of the discourse around ‘populism’, and so a characterisation of antisemitism as the nastiest subaltern rage against a successful minority makes it the perfect allegation to throw around now. This is a hopeless way of understanding antisemitism.

The central condition of possibility for antisemitic thinking is a view in which intractable ethnic or cultural interests are the ultimate determinants of political life. According to this logic, the Rothschilds are ‘bloodsuckers’ not simply because they need to accumulate profits to sustain their business, but because their race or their culture tells them to suck blood from the Anglo-Saxon worker.

That thinking can appear on the Left, but it is quite different from the usual left-wing forms of anti-elitism, which concentrate on people’s positions within constructed social relations of exploitation and oppression as the root of their political interests; such anti-elitisms sometimes take insufficient account of the power of grand social structures in thinking that individual rich and powerful agents wield total control over the world, but that is to mount a different criticism from the one which thinks all anti-elitisms are tinged with the possibility of antisemitism.

If subaltern antisemitism shares the rhetoric of anti-elitism with the Left, it shares its culturalism with the Right and with the political mainstream: from the ‘clash of civilisations’ myth to the anxious emphasis on teaching ‘British values’ from New Labour, coalition and Conservative governments alike, this is the view that cultural norms and cultural interests determine the course of political struggle.

3. Antisemitism is the disease of a few fringe bigots

Ever since fears about antisemitism in Labour first surfaced, they have focussed on individuals accused of making antisemitic comments. After the massacre in Pittsburgh, American journalists rushed to talk of mental illness or weird, marginal fascism in diagnosing the killer.

That is the convenient framing of liberal anti-racism: that the social order is healthy, but a tiny number of people are miserably sick in the head and the rest of us must be protected from them. Hence, we were told this summer, we must come up with a quasi-legal definition of antisemitism so that we can then pursue the mutants who fall prey to it.

That reaction is all wrong. It is of a piece with the worrying trend towards the pathologisation of politics, wherein the state’s ‘Prevent’ agenda speaks of ‘safeguarding’ Muslim teenagers from the risk that the poor things might have their young minds twisted into opposing imperial crimes in the Middle East. Prevent is presented as part of a mental health agenda. Angry politics is a disease; militants are its victims.

This mode of social explanation is convenient because it treats the problem as limited to a small minority and it entirely avoids the question how the wider social structure might share responsibility for making people think this way.

That last question is also shelved by some of the thinking that prospers on the Left today. Where once we spoke of ‘solidarity’, now we talk instead of ‘allyship’. The former framing prioritised the identification of common enemies to unite disparate coalitions; the latter risks treating the work of politics as a charitable endeavour.

Expressing solidarity against antisemitism from the Left demands asking what role it plays in sustaining the conditions of hierarchical society that we all wish to explode. Offering allyship usually forecloses that question. It means seeing Jews as the circumscribed social group targeted by antisemitism, since it asks us to oppose antisemitism simply because we ought to help Jews as a moral obligation.

Expressing solidarity against antisemitism demands asking what role it plays in sustaining the conditions of hierarchical society that the Left aims to explode

Gentiles are called upon to support victimised Jews from their position of comfort and privilege, rather than to ask how antisemitism attacks them too – the older question that motivated Frantz Fanon to see fundamental conceptual links between colonial and antisemitic ideologies. The language of solidarity searches for enemy social structures that harm us all, and which also generate manias scapegoating particular groups.

That language can lead to crude and unpersuasive aspirational declarations of common interest, but it is a worthwhile project for keeping in view the deep social foundations of bigotries. In our political moment people experience alienation and exploitation, and are still told they live at the ‘End of History’, and that comprehensive social transformation is therefore impossible.

In this context, antisemitism is the predictable, desperate conservative project to identify some tiny cultural cancer that can be zapped to rescue the social order and make everything great again. Neoliberals insisted that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to the power of capital, and so this is the spasm they breed: an attempt to escape without the need for an alternative. Politics retreats to the level of essential, cultural enmities once everything grander is foreclosed. That is Trumpism.

Antisemitism today is part of a much bigger historical story than is suggested by tales of peripheral fanatics to be loathed or the mentally ill to be pitied. Racists are produced, they do not produce themselves, and the society that produces racism is the really fundamental object of study and critique.

Racism should be our focus, then, understood as a pervasive ideological condition, rather than racists treated as that small cluster of the very worst apples in the barrel. This is to seek a very different way of talking about antisemitism from the one that currently prevails.

4. Political moderates can beat antisemitism

Recent discussions of antisemitism in Britain might have been much improved by incorporating two lessons from Karl Marx. The first is his plea for the critique of ideology. Pithily and influentially expressed in chapter 1 of Capital, ideology is that condition in which ‘they do it, but they do not know they do it’, in which we convince ourselves of partial and misleading explanations for our actions. Marx thus takes seriously people’s statements about their own beliefs; he thinks they run much deeper than mere conscious deceptions.

When politicians and journalists who rarely bat an eye in the face of Islamophobia or migrants drowning in the Mediterranean express their heartfelt anti-racist principles in talking of antisemitism, a Left committed to the critique of ideology would not dismiss them as cynics attempting nothing more than to distract from Israeli crimes or to dislodge Jeremy Corbyn; we should instead ask what about our political moment makes erstwhile racists genuinely panic about antisemitism.

It is part and parcel of the present panic among moderates and the Right about the end of neoliberal technocracy. And when some on the Left insist on their anti-racist credentials and then speak in the next breath of ‘Zionist’ conspiracies to run the world, we should ask what induces their blind-spots rather than presuming they are simply disingenuous.

Plenty who consider themselves fervent anti-racists really harbour deep bigotries. This is not to rule out the existence of cynics consciously lying about their intentions, but it is to insist that misshapen left-wing consciousness and the anti-populist panic are both elements of this saga too.

We should ask: what about our political moment makes erstwhile racists genuinely panic about antisemitism?

The second intervention is more directly political. Penned at just 25, Marx’s On ‘The Jewish Question’ remains among the most masterful critiques of antisemitism we have. Marx charges that bourgeois politics takes cultures as given because bourgeois politics lacks the radical ambition to envision the transformation of cultures. Antisemitism, which blames any real or imagined crimes of Jews on their Jewishness, is symptomatic of this thinking.

Today we tend to imagine antisemitism as a problem of individuals or groups far from the mainstream, whom we disparage as common racists or frustrated conspiracy theorists or just sick in the head. I have suggested an alternative view in which antisemitism is organic to a political moment that preaches culturalism and the End of History.

The uniqueness of the radical Left inheres partly in its insistence that politics produces culture rather than the other way around, that people are made and remade all the way down by their encounters with power and so the ultimate culprits for inequalities and injustices cannot be Jews or Muslims or even white men as cultural groups: cultures are ciphers.

In the last instance the problem is not people but social domination, and that is what we must aspire to overcome. That is how we save everybody, Jew and non-Jew alike. 

Barnaby Raine is an intellectual historian writing his PhD at Columbia University

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...