Capitalism. Crisis. Conflicts. Jews are blamed for almost everything.
Antisemitism is one of the oldest and most persistent prejudices. Whether open and violently, or as a quiet opinion or attitude, it finds expression in everyday life including antisemitic graffiti on the streets or synagogue walls, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, strange comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, and statements in politics and the media. On school grounds „You Jew“ can be heard as a swearword, in public debates financial investors and bankers are attacked as a „plague of locusts,“ an image reminiscent of biblical anti-Jewish stories. Even antisemitic conspiracy theories, like those concerning the attack on the World Trade Center, are popular. It is therefore not surprising that according to a study by the Pew Research Center in Washington DC from 2008, about one quarter of all Germans were found to be antisemitic. But this issue is not confined only to Germany – antisemitism exists in Europe, Arab countries and many other regions of the world.
But what does antisemitism mean exactly?
Antisemitism is the most common term for all forms of hostility against Jews. Historically, this hostility existed long before the advent of the term „antisemitism“: Jews have been perceived as a threat for a long time. Whether in ancient or medieval times, they have consistently been blamed for various perceived ills; their very existence seen as cause for religious, cultural and social problems. Antisemitism therefore describes different degrees of hostile attitudes against Jews. It operates with a variety of excluding prejudices and attributes that are ascribed to all Jews. You may have heard ideas of „the Jews“ as alleged parasites, as people assumed to be greedy and deceitful.
But antisemitism not only stands for simple prejudices against Jews but also for a specific explanation of the way the world is arranged. In this world view Jews are held responsible for all the bad things happening in the world. This characteristic distinguishes antisemitism from other forms of racism: „foreigners“ are usually described as lazy and inferior. „The Jews“, on the other hand, are described as influential and powerful. They are not only bad and threatening but also superior to others, and therefore hated.
Where does all that crap come from?
Already at the beginning of Christianity a religiously motivated hatred against Jews arose: anti-Judaism. It helped Christians set themselves apart from Judaism, a religion that basically came to be equated with evil. In the Christian middle ages (5th to 15th century) this religiously motivated hatred spread further. It became accompanied by more and more anti-judaistic myths. Many stereotypes – for example of the rich and avaricious Jew – are left over from these times. Approximately two hundred years ago, with the beginning of the modern age, antisemitism changed significantly. Religious prejudices fused into economic, political, and cultural ones. This happened in a time of major social changes; upheavals and transformations, like the establishment of capitalism, were not understood by many people and brought fear with them. Therefore, simple explanations were welcome. Allegedly, „the Jews“ were undermining the national culture, dominating politics, as well as ruling the economy. These attributes almost inevitably suggested that the „Jews“ were extraordinary powerful – so powerful they could rule the world.
At the same time science was intensely involved in the construction of an „Aryan race“ and with it, racial antisemitism. Following the pseudo-scientific, biologistic race ideology of the 19th century, Jews were not treated as a cultural or a religious denomination but as a distinct „race“ with specific characteristics. In Nazi Germany, this racially motivated antisemitism led to the systematic mass murder of six million European Jews.
How antisemitism shows up today…
Quite simple – by taking up older antisemitic tropes and adjusting them to the international situation. Thus new projections arise in debates around the Middle East conflict, the United States, or criticism of globalization and capitalism. Here, simplified explanations for current issues can sometimes tie in with antisemitism by once again putting the lion’s share of the blame on the „Jews.“ An additional fact is the rejection of remembering the Holocaust among many Germans, which plays a major role in antisemitism today.
After 1945 a new form of antisemitism developed, which can solely be explained by the specific German situation. This so-called „secondary antisemitism“ describes the post-Holocaust hostility against Jews springing from a rejection of memory and guilt. Not despite, but because of Auschwitz, resentments against Jews arise. The majority of Germans then and now avoid addressing the fact that they, their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents were involved in the mass murder of six million Jews – actively, by looking the other way, by failing to resist. So they complain about how much longer must they atone and suffer, and how long their innocent grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have to pay for the Holocaust.
They also harbor suspicions that Jews make a lot of money from the genocide with the help of a so-called „holocaust industry“. Denial of guilt and responsibility, relativization of historical events and the desire for a „normal“ way of relating to one’s country are all part of this form of „secondary antisemitism“. Alternately, Auschwitz is a tale made up by the Jews, the bombing of Dresden is equated with the Holocaust, or Israel’s policies get compared to Nazi Germany. A lot of Germans despise Jews because their presence seems to remind them of their own Nazi past. They would much rather close this darkest chapter of German history once and for all and make peace with the nation – they want to be „normal“ and happy nationalists again.
… and why and how it even exists among leftists.
One point of reference for current antisemitism is the Middle East conflict. Often under the guise of criticizing Israeli policy, these kinds of conversations sometimes are an open invitation to rally against „the Jews“ in general – especially because after the Holocaust open antisemitism is not really accepted anymore in public debates.
Antisemitism, however, has never vanished – it therefore had to find new forms of expression. The new Jewish state founded after the Second World War provides a welcome projection screen.
Certainly, not every criticism of Israeli policy is antisemitic. But often the lines to antisemitism are crossed. It becomes suspect when people call into question the very existence and right to self-defense of a country, while at the same time they have no problem with all sorts of other countries and wars in the world. Or when the TV presenter Michel Friedman, a German Jew, gets asked in an interview what he thinks of „his country’s“ policy. Of course, the interviewer meant Israel, implying that Friedman serves as some kind of representative for Israel even though he is from Germany and has lived there all his life. In the German context, when Israelis are called Nazis and a „Holocaust in Palestine“ is discussed, this implies that the victims of the past have turned into today’s perpetrators, doing exactly what has been done to them. All of which of course amounts to a crass relativization of the Nazi Holocaust, with the effect of making German guilt appear not quite as damning as it used to. Unfortunately this form of antisemitism is also reflected in leftist circles. Some of these positions can be found in the pro-Palestinian movement. When, for example, the Palestinian struggle is inseparably associated with the struggle for peace, for human rights, and for the political right of self-determination of the Palestinians. There is no recognition that for example suicide bombings have nothing to do with emancipation. Nor is it recognized that a radical antisemitism exists in groups like Hamas or Hizbollah. If these groups prevailed it would mean the death of five million Israeli Jews. But also gays, lesbians, feminists, transgender or even just people who want to dance to loud music would have a hard time according to the ideas of Hamas – presumably as would the rest of the population. Strange organisations for left-wing solidarity, aren‘t they?
Furthermore, antisemitic images sometimes appear in left debates revolving around a critique of globalisation and associated critiques of capitalism. For example when the negative consequences of globalisation are seen as a conspiracy of „evil capitalists“ and „imperialist politicians“ – who are sometimes implied to be Jews or under Jewish control. Or when even capitalism itself is not seen as a system that is inherently set up in a harmful way; a set of social relations under which people are forced to go to work not to meet social needs but to create profit – not because the particular employers are so greedy but because competition forces them to. Instead, capitalism is understood as the work of individual capitalists or corporations – a critique of capitalists, not of capitalism. In some cases, people only have something against capitalism when it is about interest rates or financial markets. They don‘t see that the financial sphere is closely related to the production of goods and that criticizing it alone doesn‘t make much sense, ignoring that the real evil lies in a mode of production in which people are exploited through wage labor.
What does all of this have to do with antisemitism? As we have seen above, the equation of Jews with money was a pervasive image for centuries, it is firmly fixed in Western thought. Hence such a „foreshortened critique of capitalism“ always provides a ready opportunity to make the Jews responsible for the ills of capitalistic society. In this logic, it must always be a group of people who possess the features that for centuries were associated with „the Jews“ being the so-called „speculators“ who cunningly „drain the people dry“ economically by claiming interest and thus „dominate the whole world.“ This line of argument then – consciously or unconsciously – builds upon antisemitic stereotypes. Interestingly enough, this „abbreviated critique of capitalism“ is also found among Nazi groups, where it is rooted in their ethnic and nationalist ideas.
To sum it up…
Antisemitism is not just crazy prejudice against Jews but represents an even crazier form of false explanation of what is wrong in the world, according to the formula „They are to blame!“. The reason and motivation for antisemitism are not always identical; antisemitic images are often updated and adapted to the current world situation. Thus they can be heard in discussions around the Middle East conflict, the United States or the critique of globalization. And because leftists also are part of a society shaped by antisemitism, they are certainly not immune to such stereotypes. All this is reason enough to develop a comprehensive and liberatory criticique ofcapitalism,tounderstandthecomplexsituationin the Middle East, and to be certain of the urgency of Primo Levi’s realization that „It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.“
For further reading:
Zionism, anti-semitism and the left
Interview with Moishe Postone on workersliberty.org
Shift Magazine: top b3rlin: Make a foreshortened critique of capitalism history!: Without a radical critique every action becomes mere activism
Reflections on the anti-G8 mobilisation 2007
The Greece-based group terminal 119 is dealing with antisemitism and the left
Spencer Sunshine: Occupied with conspiracies? The Occupy Movement, Populist Anti-Elitism, and the Conspiracy Theorists