It is now established in the neoliberal mainstream as an unquestionable fact that left antisemitism is a major problem.
This has been more or less taken for granted in the media coverage of the rump of right wing MPs who have split from Labour. But it was also strongly expressed by French president Emmanuel Macron speaking after the right wing writer Alain Finkielkraut had suffered antisemitic abuse on the fringes of a Yellow Vests march.
The way the charge of left antisemitism has been thoroughly used by the Labour right doesn’t mean that we should simply ignore it. Does the left have a problem with antisemitism?
Answering this question requires a proper understanding of modern antisemitic ideology. Alongside revolting racist stereotypes, it is a theory that makes the problems of the world a product of a Jewish world conspiracy. This is located especially in international finance, but manipulates behind the scenes in the politics, the media, universities, and so on.
Once you begin to look at the ideology you understand why the German socialist leader August Bebel called antisemitism the “socialism of fools”. It permits a superficial critique of capitalism, where the problem is not the system itself but the distortions produced by a racialised conspiracy.
By contrast, Marx argued what’s wrong with capitalism lies in its very nature, and in particular in the exploitation of wage labour by capital—irrespective of the colour or religion of either capitalist or worker. In Capital, Volume I, he treats capitalists as “the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of particular class relations and interests”.
This is why antisemitism has been largely the property of the far right. It allows them to posture as anti-capitalists, while displacing the contradictions of the system onto a racialised minority. It was this ideology that led to the Nazis to perpetrate the Holocaust, but we can see it at work today in the far right’s obsession with the liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros.
The equation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism helps to render invisible the systematic oppression of the Palestinians by Israel
Does this mean that people with broadly left wing values are never antisemitic? No, the more individuals stray away from Marx’s conception of capitalism as a system of impersonal domination and succumb to the temptation of conspiracy theory, the more they can become open to antisemitic ideas. A contemporary example of such a logic is the myth that Israel mounted the 9/11 attacks.
This kind of conspiracy theory, alongside cruder antisemitic slurs, should be combated wherever they emerge. But they have nothing to do with the politics of Jeremy Corbyn, with his history of anti-racist and anti-imperialist campaigning, let alone that of the Marxist left.
The contemporary charge of left antisemitism has two functions. The first is to put the radical left onto the defensive. We can see this now, as Labour right wingers, often with terrible records on immigration, pose as “anti-racists”.
The second is to make criticism of Israel illegitimate, if not actually illegal. So Macron said, “Anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of antisemitism.” He plans to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. This definition makes it antisemitic to call the state of Israel “a racist endeavour”.
This is despite the considerable historical evidence to support this claim, and despite the odious racist statements frequently made about Arabs by Israeli politicians.
The equation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism helps to render invisible the systematic oppression of the Palestinians by Israel. If entrenched, it would make solidarity with their struggle politically impossible.
In a peculiar way there is a convergence here between the neoliberal centre and right wing “populists” that the likes of Macron profess to loathe. Much of the far right today support Israel. This is because they are Islamophobes who rightly see Israel as a bulwark of Western domination of the Middle East.
But antisemitism remains crucial to far right ideology today because it allows criticisms of big business that do not cut to the heart of the capitalist system. Targeting left antisemitism lets the real antisemites off the hook.