By Nick Clark
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What are the roots of antisemitism?

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Issue 2716
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has pushed antisemitic conspiracy theories
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has pushed antisemitic conspiracy theories (Pic: Kancelaria Premiera )

Antisemitism belongs to the right. That’s a simple and straightforward fact. But it’s an important argument in the face of attempts to cast the whole of left wing politics as tarnished with antisemitism.

There are growing claims that the left’s opposition to Israel, to war, and to the rich are rooted in old antisemitic conspiracy theories.

That’s galling because such antisemitism—which says Jewish people conspire to dominate governments and finance—has always been poison to real left wing politics.

It’s always been used to shift blame and anger away from those at the top—who aren’t all united by race, nationality or religion—and onto Jews.

Antisemitism can be traced back to a much older persecution of Jewish people.

Before capitalism, European monarchs used Christianity to justify their rule and, during the Middle Ages, their crusades against Muslim countries.

It was a rigid system where everyone had their place. Kings and lords ruled by divine right, and serfs and peasants worked the land. Those who didn’t follow Christianity were pushed to the margins, and for Jewish people that often meant into the role of merchants and traders.

A few prospered from trade between countries and became rich enough to lend money to rulers and monarchs. But generally Jews made a living as small time traders.

It was a vulnerable position that left them open to sporadic persecution and scapegoating from the top, and resentment by those at the bottom.

The crucial difference between that persecution and the antisemitism of today is that it was about religion—it didn’t cast Jewish people as a distinct, separate race.

That changed after the development of capitalist society, when antisemitism emerged to play a specific role.

Jews were picked on as scapegoats for a number of crises that hit capitalist societies in the late 1800s. They were blamed for the economic crisis of the 1870s, defeats in wars and for the growth of workers’ movements.

For the first time Jews began to be attacked as a “race.”


“Scientific” notions of race had been developed to justify the slave trade that fuelled the growth of capitalism. Now antisemitic writers began to talk about Jewish people as a distinct race—an external enemy that threatened society and could never assimilate even through conversion to Christianity.

The economic position Jews had been pushed into, and the anti-Jewish religious myths, were turned into the basis for antisemitic tropes.

Writers and politicians across Europe pushed antisemitic ideas. In France, Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus was framed for spying in 1894, with antisemites leading the charge against him. In Poland and Russia, Jewish people were made scapegoats for poverty, and were victims of horrific state-organised pogroms.

‘At the core of the Holocaust was an industrial killing system’—75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz
‘At the core of the Holocaust was an industrial killing system’—75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz
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The antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, purported to be the minutes of a conference where Jews conspired to dominate the world. It was printed across Europe and the US, including by car manufacturer Henry Ford.

This racialised hatred of Jews was used to scapegoat Jewish people throughout the twentieth century. It was adopted by the Nazis as the ideology that held them together and drove their movement forward and ultimately towards the Holocaust.

It’s still integral to fascist and far right ideology today. The antisemitic Hungarian government of Viktor Orban pushes antisemitic conspiracy theories. Far right supporters of Donald Trump marched in 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us”.

An important point is that antisemitism has always been deliberately an alternative to left wing ideas.

Antisemitism often tries to appeal as a challenge to the system. Ultimately it’s a defence of it.

Socialists’ critique of capitalism blames a system of economic exploitation by those at the top of society over the vast majority of people. That doesn’t mean that antisemitic ideas never appear among left wing people.

But the more someone blames Jews, the further they are from the socialist argument. Antisemitism isn’t a product of left wing politics. It’s a diversion from it.

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