This has been a hot topic on the forums of late, prompted in part by the spate of discussions in relation to Israel's assault on the Gaza strip. Here I'll try to pull together some of the arguments and provide a bit of background to try and understand the phenomenon.
Discussion of anti-semitism and the left is frought with difficulty, not least because of the efforts of right-wing groups like the Anti-Defamation League to paint all criticism of Israel as anti-semitic, and thus silence dissent. Then there's left-wing groups like the Anti-Deutsch who take opposition to leftist palestinian flag-waving anti-zionism to its mirror image, supporting the Israeli state and waving stars of David, claiming anything less than support for Israel is anti-semitic. There's also the related notion from a similar milieu that any criticism of capitalism that focuses on finance is not simply myopic, but 'structurally anti-semitic' (a term I actually think is worth reclaiming for a more sensible meaning, see below).
On the other hand, leftist anti-semitism does exist. Most infamous is the Adbusters article 'Why won't anyone say they are Jewish?' which lists a string of Jewish neoconservatives, claiming they're not being anti-semitic because the people the list really are Jews. If that's the case, we await their 'why won't anyone say they're grey haired?' sequel with baited breath! As moderators of this forum we've had to unpublish comments endorsing the article and going beyond it into bizarre anti-semitic conspiracy theories (such as painting the recent South Ossetia conflict as the work of rich Israeli Jews). The cartoons of Carlos Latuff often flirt with anti-semitic images and caricatures (such as the 'Jewish puppetmaster'). We've got an article by Kevin Keating in our 'best of the worst' section that peddles the casual anti-semitic conspiracy theory - basically indistinguishable from far-right ZOG ones - that "the US is effectively a pawn of its client state in Jerusalem." In this vein just a couple of days ago a statement - provoking much criticism - signed by several platformist groups and published on Anarkismo alleged that:
As far as the USA is concerned, there is no doubt. Apart from the important strategic and territorial alliance that Israel represents for American imperialism in the Middle East, it also has to deal with the powerful US Jewish economic lobby, which is strong enough to bring about a stong influence on US foreign policy.
Following criticism, the offending section (which only represents a fraction of the statement, although this is hardly the point) was revised to read:
As far as the USA is concerned, there is no doubt. Apart from the important strategic and territorial alliance that Israel represents for American imperialism in the Middle East, it also has to deal with the powerful US pro-Israel lobby, which is strong enough to bring about an influence on US foreign policy.
But this substitution of 'pro-Israel lobby' for 'Jewish economic lobby' raises more questions than it answers. For starters, the two terms are only synonyms according to questionable assumptions that equate 'Jewish economic' interests with Israel. The problem with the statement is not simply the specific terms used, but the whole structure of this particular assertion, which neglects a materialist, class (and evidence!) based understanding of the middle-east in favour of a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario of a US government manipulated against its own interests. Notably, we rarely hear US foreign policy in other areas - longstanding support for Saddam Hussein say - ascribed to a mysterious lobby. But the statement's authors and signatories, even after criticism insist that there's "no doubt" this is the case when it comes to Israel (See Django's blog post for a debunking of this position).
To an extent this reaction reflects the wider fallacy of political correctness; the essentialist idea that if 'discriminatory words' are suppressed, so is discrimination. Of course this ignores the fact that the meaning of words are context-dependent, and that terms like 'nigger' range from sickening racist abuse to terms of endearment or friendly humour depending on the context. The contemporary far-right has fully expolited this fallacy, re-inventing itself as the defender of the rights of indiginous people ('white Britons'), and using a whole host of politically correct euphemisms to peddle race-hate. So to understand how no-doubt sincere anarchist-communist comrades can come out with statements, even in 'error' that mirror far-right or Islamist anti-semitism, and furthermore fail to see what's actually wrong with it when criticised, we have to dig a little deeper (with the purpose of understanding and uprooting anti-semitic ideas rather than smugly denouncing comrades as anti-semites).
What needs to be considered is the legacy of the figure of 'the Jew' in the European cultural imagination (which includes European offshoots like North America). This figure is the shadowy, conspiratorial puppetmaster behind world events, the personification of the invisible forces of capital which shape our lives. This leads to a truncated critique of financial capital rather than capital per se (as in the recent 'blame the bankers' type propaganda around the economic crisis). While explicit anti-Jewish racism is now far less acceptable than it once was, it is not identical to or necessary for these historical anti-semitic narratives to find contemporary resonance. In the case of 'blaming the bankers' for instance, one has to ask why it has populist resonance? What narratives is it tapping into? It is in this context I think the term 'structural anti-semitism' makes sense, to describe rehashed classical anti-semitic arguments without the anti-Jewish racism, arguments that are structurally identical to anti-semitic ones only the term 'Jew' is subsitiuted with 'Zionist', 'financial elite', 'wealthy bankers', 'lizards' or whatever. I would argue the prevelance of these ideas among the left mostly reflects a lack of materialist class analysis, which in turn reflects the weakness of the class, rather than any thinly veiled Jew-hating.
While anti-semitism has a long and inglorious history, the discussion in relation to the left requires a little more historical background. As the left is defined in relation to capitalism, I'll address the development of anti-semitism alongside the birth of early capitalism. In medieval europe there were three major religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Bloody wars were fought between them and between sub-sects (such as following the Reformation), but religion was a major force structuring social life. Usury - the lending of money at interest - was prohibited by both Islam and Christianity, but not by Judaism. Consequently according the the historian Paul Johnson's 'A history of the Jews':
Catholic autocrats frequently imposed the harshest financial burdens on the Jews. The Jews reacted by engaging in the one business where Christian laws actually discriminated in their favour, and became identified with the hated trade of moneylending.
This is an example of how Jews occupied a place in Christendom that was simultaneously inside it but not of it, a cosmopolitan Other, an alien within. The expenses of imperialist competition increasingly led Europe's rulers into the arms of bankers who could lend them the capital necessary to finance their (potentially lucrative) overseas adventures. This largely meant Christians borrowing from Jews to finance their wars and conquests. (Restrictions on usury were eventually relaxed by the Christian churches, reflecting the material needs of emerging capitalism, and underlining that ultimately prevailing religious ideology is structured according to the needs of capital and the state).
Concurrent with this was the confluence of the existing 'miserly Jewish money-lender' archetype typified by Shakespeare's Shylock in 'The Merchant of Venice', and a material basis for this ideology, as anti-capitalist sentiments were expressed as a truncated critique of emergent capitalism focused on banking and finance. Whilst merchants could be resented for buying cheap and selling dear, they also travelled the globe bringing many exotic commodities with them, seeming to do something to earn their riches. By contrast, usurers appeared as alchemists, conjuring profit from nothing but the neediness of their borrowers. Furthermore, this was sinning against the word of God, no small matter in a medieval world of Inquisitions and executions for heresy.
Thus the anti-semitic narratives emanating from parts of the left have a long history, and when reproduced - perhaps unthinkingly - they resonate with this unsavoury cultural heritage, mirroring classic anti-semitism in all but terminology - and sometimes in that too. In the case of many of the Trotskyist parties and their fellow-travelers, there is a Machiavelian, materialist explanation for the adoption of these narratives: pragmatically building electoral alliances with Islamic groups and pandering to the perceived anti-semitism of their constituencies. For anarchists however, satisafactory explanations, beyond 'bad analysis' are less forthcoming. To re-iterate however, I don't think such statements - certainly for the most part - are manifestations of a secret hatred of Jews. I certainly wouldn't make such claims without very good evidence. I think instead they can be understood as an expression of the ressentiment I have argued underpins leftist (as opposed to communist) politics.
In the case of Israel-Palestine, this ressentiment is structured as follows. Israel, a 'white', European democracy ('the only democracy in the middle-east' by its own boast) represents the most powerful party (if the parties to the conflict are understood in national as opposed to class terms). 'They' are like 'us', that is to say Britain and America, an imperial outpost of the West in 'someone elses' land. The inverse racism of white-mans burden guilt kicks in, and consequently leftists invert the values of the powerful into a slave morality which extols the virtues of the powerless. In practical terms, this victim politics manifests itself in the casual waving of Palestinian flags and support for Palestinian nationalism and 'self-determiniation' (practically, meaning rule by Islamic or secular-nationalist gangsters instead of Israeli ones, as will be the case unless there's communist revolution). A laudable humanitarian concern for the victims of barbarism becomes attached to the very ideologies that help perpetuate that barbarism.
This brings us to another important point. In all of this, that barbarism should not be forgotten in the haste to be critical of anti-semitism. As I write a horrific asymmetric conflict is unfolding in the Gaza strip, with the civilian population caught between the rockets of one of the most powerful militaries on earth and the much-inferior rockets of brutal Islamist gangsters quite content to murder civilians and repress Palestinian workers in pursuit of their own aims. This barbarism is to be unequivically condemned as the continued spiral of fratricidal violence offers the working class nothing but bloodshed; blood shed for their rulers. As communists we cannot content ourselves with being a critical appendage of the left. But neither does this mean we should not criticise those on the left who merit it.
An opposition to the unfolding barbarism requires and opposition to all nationalism, 'oppressed' or not. We should not be regurgitating anti-semitic arguments. We should not be siding with or muting criticism of Palestinian nationalists. If one doubts the nationalism of the left, a simple thought experiment should assist: imagine the consequences if one were to burn an Israeli flag on a demonstration. Then a stars and stripes perhaps. Then a Palestinian one. If the cheers didn't turn into jeers or violence I would be very surprised.1 Opposition to war rather than mere support for the underdog requires this principled internationalism - a rejection of all nationalism and of anti-semitism every bit as strong as a rejection of Zionism. Military asymmetry doesn't come into it.
- 1. Postscript 18/01/09: Conceive of a thought experiment and reality obliges. For instance see what the chair of Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign - wearing a hat with the reactionary ressentimental slogan 'native pride' - did to a placard saying 'No to the IDF, No to Hamas//Solidarity with women, workers and the left' - all caught on camera.