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26 July 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:27pm

Contemporary anti-Semitism 101: a basic (as possible) ten-point explainer

Jewish newspapers on Thursday described the Labour party as an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country.” Here’s everything you need to know.

By David Bennun

This week, Britain’s three leading Jewish newspapers have come together to run the same front page editorial, describing the Labour party as an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country”.

This follows veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge accusing party leader Jeremy Corbyn to his face of being a “racist and an anti-Semite”. Supporters of Corbyn have reacted with furious denial to these statements.

For anyone wondering how on earth we have got to this point, where anti-Semitism is an inflammatory issue in mainstream politics not only in the UK but across the West, here is an Anatomy of Contemporary anti-Semitism 101: a basic (as possible) ten-point explainer.

1. Anti-Semitism is not simply a prejudice against Jews.

It is a conspiracy theory, one without a fundamental political alignment. This is crucial to understanding why we should, in the space of a year, see American neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the majority of British Jews uniting in protest against Labour, the UK’s major left-wing party, in the belief it is institutionally anti-Semitic.

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2. The conspiracy theory appears in many guises, but they all come down to some variation on this: undue influence is wielded by Jews covertly acting in concert with one another.

It is a premise codified in the notorious 1903 Tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the motherlode of modern conspiracy theory. This is a form of prejudice unique among those directed at non-white ethnic groups. Where other races may be held in contempt as inferior, menacing, or plain different, the central myth and fear of anti-Semitism is that of collective Jewish power being deployed for sordid Jewish purposes.

(It should be noted here that a favoured ruse of apologists for, or deniers of, anti-Semitism is to say that Jews are not a distinct ethnic group – as if those who would do harm to Jews first administer religious or genetic tests – or that Jews are white and thus enjoy white privilege, as if this “white privilege” has protected Jews from consistent persecution and murder over the last several centuries.)

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3. Anti-Semitism is expected from the far-right, because that is where its most lethal manifestations have originated. But it has long associations with the left, too.

It was famously characterised by 19th century German Social Democrats as “the socialism of fools.” People involved in progressive/left-wing politics tend to understand the structural nature of prejudice: the way it is not necessarily manifested in conscious hatred of its target, but can appear as unconscious bias and discrimination. Yet many of these same people are prone suddenly to lose this understanding where Jews are concerned – a convenient (if often unself-aware) evasion of the reality of anti-Semitism, and a method of whitewashing over the stain of racism upon those who pursue its conspiracy myths.

4. On the left, this conspiracy theory manifests largely as part of what is known as “anti-Imperialism”.

This is a Manichean worldview in which the white, capitalist West is the source or the cause of all wickedness, and the non-white nations the victims of it. Like many conspiracy theories, this one begins with a kernel of plausibility – demonstrably, there has been and remains grievous inequality and exploitation – then embellishes and amplifies it with half-truths and outright fictions, creating a simplified picture of the world: the West is always bad, no matter what its civic virtues; anybody opposed to it, no matter how awful, is better, or certainly no worse. Capitalism becomes part of a grand, overarching, unified conspiracy, to which Jews invariably prove to be integral.

Anti-Semitism is thus not some random blight that affects all sectors of society and opinion roughly evenly. It is utterly enmeshed in far-left thought, just as it is in that of the equally conspiratorially-minded far-right.

5. The most obvious manifestation of this conspiracy theory on the left is in the fervent loathing of Israel.

Often this is put forward by people who customarily and disingenuously describe themselves as “critics”; but who, far from simply wishing Israel to change its conduct towards the Palestinian people (an entirely legitimate aim shared by many Jews), either seek themselves, or side with those who seek, Israel’s dissolution or destruction.

The boilerplate defence of left-wing fixation upon Israel is that “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism”; yet the rhetoric and premise of the two things, by which Jews and Jewish institutions are singled out as uniquely malevolent and dangerous, are so frequently indistinguishable as to make the distinction vanish. It is now entirely unremarkable to encounter views such as those expressed on a placard at London’s recent anti-Trump protests; that Israel is “Nazi scum”, and that its conflict with Palestinians, far from being one amongst many such clashes around the globe, is somehow “poisoning the world” – much as mediaeval Jews used to stand accused of poisoning wells.

6. This goes to the heart of the Labour Party taking it upon itself to rewrite unilaterally the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

This definition has been accepted in full by governments, mainstream political parties and other institutions throughout the democratic world. Labour’s rewrite allows for the expression of anti-Semitic tropes about wicked, plotting, treacherous Jews in the guise of criticism of Israel (criticism that the full IHRA definition in no way prevents).

Under Labour’s new code of conduct, it is not deemed anti-Semitic to claim that Jews are Nazis or Nazi sympathisers; that they are conspirators in thrall to Israel; that their allegiance lies with a country other than their own, or with other Jews, on the basis of their race (this last has been slyly downgraded from a racist offence, which might require suspension or expulsion, to merely and vaguely “wrong”.)

A key loophole requires that anyone expressing anti-Semitic views about Israel or Jewish identification with it must be shown to have “anti-Semitic intent”. Placing the emphasis on the motive of the person, rather than on the substance and effect of their words and actions, runs counter to the practice of any serious institution concerning racism. As the then Commission for Racial Equality long since made clear: “If racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, that institution is racist whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have racial intentions.”

7. The “Nazi” claim is of special significance in the case of anti-Semitism.

It is not unusual for left-wing people to carelessly throw about this gibe. But to refer to Jews, the principal victims of Nazi genocide, as Nazis is not merely inflammatory hyperbole, or a category error. It also functions, consciously or otherwise, as a form of “soft” Holocaust denial for those who find the overt kind too crude or ineffective.

As the Holocaust legitimises Israel as a refugee state for the Jewish people, the enemies of Israel must delegitimise the Holocaust. Describing Jews as Nazis is Holocaust inversion; by equating its victims with its perpetrators, anti-Semites retroactively frame it as something like a gang fight, in which one murderous group slaughtered another that had it coming.

8. The familiar myths and tropes of anti-Semitism are re-issued, manifest as radical doctrine.

This comes clothed in the righteous notion of Israel as an imperialist outpost, where “white” Jews are colonists who oppress darker-skinned “natives” – or even, depending on the level of conspiracy, as the puppet-master of imperialism. Evil financiers appear under the banner of “Rothschild”, while on the right, the name of George Soros, the Hungarian-born Jewish businessman, has become a dog-whistle for anti-Semitic nationalists in Europe and America.

In these narratives, those who bravely seek to overturn the old order (whether from the left or the right) are opposed, smeared and traduced by powerful, Jewish-controlled “interests” – maybe the “globalists” who encircle the world in the grip of their tentacles, maybe the “Zionist lobby” that imposes its will on politicians and the media. The language evolves, although some of it is centuries old; the core concepts remain much as they ever were.

 9. Jews are not unanimous on anti-Semitism, but those who differ are very few.

A significant portion of the apologists for the conspiracy theory that is anti-Semitism themselves profess Jewish identity. Significant not in numbers – they are a very small proportion of the Jewish population – but in their visibility and volubility. Like any Jewish people, they are entitled to their view on Jewishness, but they go far beyond this by attempting to portray themselves as its true voice.

Their usefulness to the theory lies in enthusiastically providing what the scholar of anti-Semitism, David Hirsh, describes as a “kosher stamp” for its proponents. People who would never accept non-white supporters of Donald Trump or UKIP as being remotely representative of their ethnic groups are quick to brandish these Jewish allies as evidence of the racial innocence of their causes or organisations. An old Jewish joke runs, “Two Jews, three opinions”; which makes it all the more notable that the great majority of Jews are united in their consensus on what constitutes anti-Semitism. 

10. Conspiracies drown out more rational thought among tribal political groups as a test for belonging.

As politicians of the far-left take over the left’s mainstream, so the conspiracies within some of their world view also become mainstream among those on the left who do not hold so extreme an outlook, or even a particularly well-defined one – other than a vague (and entirely justifiable) sense that change is urgently needed.

Integral to the flourishing of these conspiracies is a psychological trait common throughout contemporary tribal politics of all kinds, whereby the morality of actions is defined by the self-presumed virtue of the actor, rather than the other way around.

On the right, where the presumption of anti-racism is not so key to self-image, an accusation of anti-Semitism is often met with a nod and wink. On the left, the furious, categorical denial of anti-Semitism as a structural problem depends upon this process. Anyone making such an accusation must have ulterior motives; an “agenda”.

That the agenda of the accuser might be to resist or challenge racism is unthinkable; it has to be sinister and politically partisan. It follows then that the great majority of British Jews are at best hysterical and deluded, or simply lying.

Thus denial of anti-Semitism feeds directly back into the conspiracy that is anti-Semitism – a self-sustaining cycle, wherein Jews are either progenitors, agents, or proxies of the conspiracy against what is good and just.