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25 May 2021

The resurgence of anti-Semitism on the left and right is a warning to us all

Anti-Semitic incidents are increasing as our collective memory of Jewish suffering is slowly fading. 

By James Bloodworth

Anti-Semitism is on the rise. The Community Security Trust (CST), which advises Britain’s Jews on security matters, said on 19 May it had recorded 106 anti-Semitic incidents since 8 May. This is a fivefold increase on the previous 11 days. Incidents included a convoy of cars flying Palestinian flags driving through a Jewish community in north London and broadcasting anti-Semitic messages from a megaphone. 

Surveying anti-Semitism in wartime Britain, George Orwell (who made anti-Semitic references himself in Down and Out in Paris and London) noted that people were “careful to draw a distinction between ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘disliking Jews’”. 

Something similar is true today. Few people are willing to admit that they don’t like Jews. Instead, anti-Semitism comes repackaged as a form of “anti-Zionism” which rejects any version of Israel. 

Others resort to victim blaming. At a pro-Palestine rally this weekend, the veteran left-winger Tariq Ali claimed that “every time they [Israel] bomb Gaza, every time they attack Jerusalem – that is what creates anti-Semitism”. 

Much of the recent discourse around anti-Semitism in Britain has focused on the left. During Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party there were a number of anti-Semitic incidents, including the suggestion by a senior Momentum activist that Jews were the “chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade”. 

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Left-wing anti-Semitism is not new: it was memorably characterised as the “socialism of fools” a century ago by the German socialist August Bebel. During the 20th century, Soviet anti-Semitism was reproduced by the communist press in the West and subsequently found its way into the left’s ideological bloodstream. 

However the recent resurgence in left-wing anti-Semitism arguably derives from a wider retreat from materialism. Nowadays capitalism is rarely analysed in political discourse as a system of relations. Instead the focus tends to be on “bad” people who supposedly control the world: bankers, newspaper proprietors, Zionists. This is in contrast to the Marxist notion that powerful individuals are mere caretakers of capitalism. 

Structural analysis has its own limitations, however, especially when it comes to concepts of victimhood. In a world that is neatly divided into oppressors and the oppressed, some believe that Jews “do not deserve to be treated as victims”, as Dave Rich writes in his book The Left’s Jewish Problem.

[see also: Why the surge in anti-Semitism left me checking for my passport]

The oppressed are not always what you want them to be. Jews in Britain (or Israel for that matter) do not always look like the wretched of the Earth; according to former Corbyn adviser Andrew Murray, the ex-leader could not empathise with British Jews because they are “prosperous”. In other words, they do not behave in the way we on the left have been taught that victims should behave. As such they are assumed to be immune to hate. 

Of course it isn’t only among the left that anti-Semitism has recrudesced. Hungary, a country feted by conservative intellectuals, is exporting a new language of anti-Semitism around the world. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party foments conspiracy theories about Muslim immigration and the Jewish philanthropist George Soros. Its rhetoric of “globalists”, “cosmopolitans”, and “cabals” has been incorporated into mainstream right discourse (Donald Trump used the term “globalist” on multiple occasions).

The internet also appears to be fuelling a new generation of activists driven by a conspiratorial vision of how the world works. Jean-Paul Sartre once noted that anti-Semitism is a way for ordinary individuals to feel part of an alternative intellectual elite. By allowing us to curate information so that it reflects our own prejudices back at us, the web functions as a conveyor belt for a similar sort of intellectual narcissism. 

This conspiratorial solipsism is fertile ground for anti-Semitism. At a recent anti-lockdown demonstration in central London, protesters wore yellow stars of David. The apparent purpose was to show that their “struggle” – the refusal to wear a mask and take a vaccine – was somehow comparable to the suffering experienced by Jews in 1930s Germany. 

Such cosplaying is obviously repulsive. But it is also perhaps a product of our self-absorbed treatment of historical memory: nowadays we are frequently encouraged to see the horrors of the past through the particular vector of our own suffering.

That is if we acknowledge the past at all. A recent US survey found that 63 per cent of millennial and Generation Z respondents were unaware that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust; 36 per cent thought that “two million or fewer Jews” were killed. 

Worryingly, such historical amnesia exists alongside a “residual yet perpetual” prejudice against Jews, as a recent paper on European anti-Semitism described it. In the US last week there were several physical attacks against Jews and instances of vandalism at synagogues and Jewish community centres, and protest signs depicting Zionists as “Nazis”.

To be sure, it is important to maintain perspective. Anti-Semitic incidents remain rare in the West. But they are increasing at a time when our collective memory of Jewish suffering is slowly fading. Moreover, only a handful of survivors remain alive to retell the story of the Shoah.    

This should be taken as a warning. As the Holocaust survivor Primo Levi once wrote: “If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again.” 

[see also: Israel-Palestine: is it time for the world to consider a one-state approach?]