This is a slightly extended version of an article for ‘La Hiedra’, the bimonthly magazine of En Lucha, the International Socialist Tendency group in the Spanish state. Given the current furore in the Labour Party in Britain over alleged antisemitism, to which this article in part refers, I hope it might make a useful contribution to discussion.
The question of antisemitism has once again risen to haunt us. Across Europe’s far-right we are witnessing a resurgence of this form of foul reaction. In eastern Europe and Greece, neo-Nazi and populist parties openly promote an antisemitic narrative. In western Europe, fascists are becoming more confident in revealing their antisemitic credentials.
In Hungary, the neo-Nazis of Jobbik came third in the 2014 parliamentary elections with 20 percent of the vote; they stand second in the polls and boast 16 elected mayors. Jobbik blames Jews, or “Zionists”, for the financial crisis, while casting them as the hidden hand behind the refugee crisis.
In Slovakia, the fascist, antisemitic People’s Party – Our Slovakia, just won 8 percent of the vote. In Ukraine, fascists and neo-Nazis promulgate antisemitic narratives on both sides of the east-west divide. In Greece, the Holocaust deniers of Golden Dawn also blame Jews for the crisis. In Belgium, Laurent Louis, leader of “Stand Up, Belgians!”, maintains the Holocaust was financed by Zionists. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen persists in his not-so-coded antisemitic message.
This rise of antisemitism on the right demands analysis and a strategy.
However, the issue of antisemitism is not confined to a contest with the far-right. The left and the anti-imperialist movement have increasingly found themselves subject to the charge of antisemitism from defenders of the state of Israel and the pro-war lobby.
Amongst a minority of Muslims here, and in the Middle East, problematic positions have developed that involve downplaying or relativising the Holocaust, and even outright antisemitism, denial or notions of a Zionist/Jewish conspiracy. Whilst it is wrong to generalise from such examples, they cannot be ignored.
Finally and crucially, antisemitism is itself set against a tide of Islamophobia and racism that is fuelling the rise of far-right and fascist movements.
In such a context it is essential to grasp both the order of threat and its political character. The stakes are high.
Antisemitism emerged as a sword of reaction in the nineteenth century. Its roots lay in opposition to the enlightenment and the French Revolution of 1789. As revolution swept Europe in 1848, antisemitism was used to mobilise opposition to demands for civil rights and universal suffrage. Anti-Semites portrayed the struggle for universal rights as an ‘alien’ Jewish conspiracy to achieve domination and destroy the established order. It was this formulation that was developed by the Nazis.
It is from such an understanding that we should approach the rise of antisemitism in Europe today.
The case of Hungary holds important lessons for the left. Hungary was one of the states hit hardest by the 2008 crash. In a European version of the US subprime mortgage scam, one third of Hungarian households took out low-interest mortgages in Swiss Francs or Euros. One half of households held foreign currency debt. When the Hungarian forint collapsed, interest payments skyrocketed. The middle class found themselves impoverished as well as many low paid workers. One couple described:
“Imagine, we couldn’t pay our electricity bills. We had to borrow money to survive... We didn’t have enough to buy even a piece of bread! The bank robbed us of everything. My husband had serious health problems, he had to go to the hospital regularly for two years. We had to spend a lot of money to pay doctors: for two years he was so sick that I thought it was the end.”
Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) rose from nowhere to become the third largest party in the national assembly and the most popular party with young voters. Its paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard, displays the emblem of the wartime fascists, the Arrow Cross, responsible for slaughtering thousands of Jews.
They are adept at using fake “anti-Zionist” terminology to conceal a hatred of Jews laced with references to a “Zionist lobby” and “Jewish” control of US foreign policy. This is the anti-imperialism of fools and harks back to Nazi Germany’s portrayal of its rival US and British imperialisms as controlled by “Jewish finance”.
Jobbik’s response to refugees exposes its fake, opportunist 'support' for Palestinians against Israel and Tehran against the US. Jobbik has been at the forefront of an anti-refugee crusade in Hungary, waged in the the name of defending Christian Europe. Its parliamentary deputies even demanded legislation to permit the military to shoot refugees crossing the border.
It is no accident that antisemitism is at its most acute where the financial crisis of 2008 hit hardest. Hungary and Greece serve as important examples. However, they differ in one vital respect. Golden Dawn is, for now, far more isolated than Jobbik. This is a direct consequence of the role played by the Greek left, the anti-fascist movement, Keerfa, and the impact of mass workers’ struggle. To this issue we will return.
In western Europe, most of the far-right (though not all) have eschewed open antisemitism. However, it is an error to think this is a permanent condition. Fascist organisations, past and present, have downplayed or even denied antisemitism when they deem it necessary. In any case, there is ample evidence of the continuing influence of antisemitism in the FN; they and Euro-fascists such as AfD in Germany are already testing the water with campaigns against “ritual slaughter” (halal and kosher) and male circumcision.
While notions of the “Islamification” of Europe and America are reminiscent of antisemitic narratives of the threat of "Jewish domination" in the 20th century, it is unlikely that Islam will entirely supplant the role that Jews occupy in fascism’s pantheon of villains. They can paint Islam as a threat to “culture”, “values” and “security”; it is more difficult to present Muslim migrants as controlling world finance or as the hidden hand behind US military power.
Thus it would be a mistake to assume that the growth of antisemitism at the sharp end of the European crisis can never spread to western European states.
“The new antisemitism”: The perils of division
The threat posed by the return of antisemitism on the far-right must be the starting point for the left. However, the political terrain has become complicated.
The first difficulty is that the charge of antisemitism is now levelled at the left itself with increasing ferocity. The defenders of the state of Israel have long shown no compunction in conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. In the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel faced the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organisation just as an anti-imperialist politics took root amongst the student, anti-Vietnam war, anti-colonial movements of the late 1960s. That narrative claimed that the left and supporters of Palestinian rights were promoting anti-Jewish prejudice under the guise of anti-Zionism.
This narrative has reshaped as new challenges to Zionism and imperialism emerged: the Iranian revolution, the first and second intifadas, the rise of Hamas, the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. However, it is with the long war on terror that the narrative of a “new antisemitism” has become ubiquitous. There is now a vast ‘literature’ in which the left, Muslims, Arab states, supporters of the Palestinian struggle, and the anti-War movement, are cast as sharing a hostility to Jews.
Islamophobia is a key driver of this onslaught. Its proponents systematically promote the notion of a Muslim community hostile to western liberal values and ‘vulnerable to extremism’. Denis MacShane, former Minister for Europe under Tony Blair, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, is typically categorical in his own tract Globalising Hatred – The New Antisemitism, “Islamism” he declares, “has unleashed the new twenty-first-century antisemitism.”
In Britain, the charge of antisemitism is being used to discredit Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left, not only from the right outside his party but from within the Labour party’s own ranks.
Quite apart from smoke and mirrors over Israel, the “new antisemitism” narrative undermines unity against fascists and the far-right. Roger Cukiermann, president of CRIF (the French equivalent of the British Jewish Board of Deputies) wrote as far back as 2002 that FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success in the polls ‘will serve to reduce Islamic antisemitism and anti-Israeli behaviour, as his vote sends a message to Muslims to behave peacefully’. Despite being forced to backtrack, he still claimed in 2015 that Marine Le Pen "cannot be faulted personally" for antisemitism. The former president of CRIF, Richard Prasquier, declared "the new category of Jew-bashing comes from those who present themselves as being anti-Zionists".
France has the largest Jewish and largest Muslim populations in Europe; the fascists of the Front Nationale amassed seven million votes in last year’s regional elections. If anywhere spells the need for unity against fascism and the far-right, it is France. Unfortunately, it has only made matters worse that much of the French left has failed to challenge state Islamophobia, even supporting bans on the veil and niqab, and often casting ‘terrorism’ as a threat equal to that of the armed might of the imperialist powers.
The challenge for the left should not be understated. Lessons need to be relearnt. Unity is not automatic. It has to be forged. The narrative of the “new antisemitism” can take hold amongst Jewish students and youth the left need to mobilise in a united front against the fascists, while serving to alienate Muslim youth from seeing antisemitism, past or present as an issue for them. This risks sowing divisions on our side and handing the real antisemites a home-free card.
Finally, this brings us to a further challenge. A minority within the Muslim community has responded to the reactionary tide of imperialism and war, Islamophobia, comparisons with Nazis, and the dispossession of the Palestinian people, by downplaying or relativising the Holocaust, or at worst, subscribing to Holocaust denial and openly antisemitic tropes.
In the Middle East, the Gulf States in particular have peddled a vicious antisemitic, as opposed to anti-Zionist, narrative. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, hosted a conference attended by leading Holocaust revisionists. We need to be ruthlessly clear about the role of these rulers. Antisemitism serves precisely to conceal their compromises and alliances with imperialism, their use of the Palestinian struggle to further their own regional aims and their long history of abject betrayal of the Palestinian people. Above all they fear, rightly, that the Palestinian struggle can act as a lightening rod for their own revolutionary overthrow. Antisemitism allows them to appear as a force that defies Zionism while acting as a bulwark against a genuine anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, class politics.
In Britain, the Labour right and Labour supporters of Israel have seized on instances of members using anti-Semitic tropes in order to denigrate the left. Some on the left have responded defensively to calls for an ‘enquiry’ from the right. But this is to concede to a disingenuous attempt by the Labour right and Labour Friends of Israel to formalise the thesis that the “new antisemitism” is a threat within Labour ranks. This should be resisted. The left has a proud record on which to stand.
Divisions and failings on our side are not new. However, to traduce a left that has been at the core of fighting racism, antisemitism and fascism in Britain should be exposed for the cynical opportunism it is. The left's role in fighting racism and fascism stands as an example across Europe, incurring the hatred of fascists and racists. Prejudice towards either Jew or Muslim should be given no quarter. Where individual cases arise they should be dealt with, incurring expulsion where necessary. But the premise must be unity against oppression, not division. It is a mistake of huge proportions to give succour to those who delight in weakening the left, regardless of the consequences for Jew, Muslim, black or white alike.
A socialist politics can be important in other respects. The neo-cons and their friends have completely degraded the political meaning of the terms fascism and Nazism. Every imperialist adventure from the attempt to overthrow Nasser during the Suez Crisis to Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, has been justified by claiming a battle against a “new Hitler”. We are now subjected to the arrant nonsense of “Islamo-fascism” while Iran and unbelievably, even the Palestinians, are compared to the Nazis.
Israel’s leaders on one hand claim to represent all the world's Jews and then with utter hypocrisy seize on any example of conflation between Zionism and antisemitism amongst Muslims. Nonetheless, we should not compound the cynicism of their side with errors of our own. Equating Zionism with Nazism is deeply mistaken; it strengthens the position of those who seek to defend the Israeli state rather than weakens it. More importantly, such equations do not help us understand the political character of Zionism or fascism, nor crucially, how to fight them.
What principles then should inform a strategy for the left? First and foremost we must insist that antisemitism is the sword of reaction that it has always been. It threatens Jew, Muslim, the left and the workers movement. That is therefore where the central battle lies.
Second, Islamophobia is acting as the vehicle for European fascism and must be opposed without compromise or qualification. Forging unity and trust with Muslim communities is a precondition of any successful fight against the threat of racism and fascism.
Third, the opportunist charge of a ‘new antisemitism’ in order to justify Islamophobia, and to slander the left, only paves the way for those who pose the real threat to Jews, Muslims and to us all. It is a narrative that has to be relentlessly contested.
Fourth, we cannot allow anger at Zionism and the crimes of the Israeli state to spill into notions that ‘Jews’ per se are the problem.
However, it is in building united front movements, such as Keerfa in Greece and Unite Against Fascism in Britain that the key task for the left in Europe lies. This will mean supporters of the Palestinian struggle standing alongside some who do believe in the need for a Jewish state but are nonetheless prepared to stand together against the forces that threaten our mutual destruction.
It is the task of socialists and revolutionaries to unite Jew, Muslim, black and white. Whilst arguing openly for socialist principles on all questions, these cannot be made a condition of unity. Unity with those with whom we agree will not be sufficient to throw back the fascist threat. The difficult but essential task is to forge unity amongst those who disagree, even on issues of principle.
It seemed inconceivable after the Holocaust that antisemitism could ever again rise in Europe. Yet in his allegorical play on the rise of Hitler, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht concludes at the end of the play, after Ui’s downfall: ‘But do not rejoice too soon at your escape — The womb he crawled from is still going strong’. As the title of the play makes clear, Brecht’s message is not that the victory of fascism is inevitable but that as long as the conditions that can regenerate fascism exist, the left will have to rise to face the threat.
There is nothing irresistible about the rise of antisemitism in Europe today, nor the forces it bears in its train. However, their increasing political purchase in large areas of Europe means socialists bear a tremendous responsibility. We require political clarity about the nature of the threat and the tasks we face in forging unity amongst the forces on our side that can defeat it.