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Antisemitism: Obsession or Logic?

The title of Robert Wistrich’s new book, From Ambivalence to Betrayal:The Left, the Jews, and Israel, may be read as a description or a conclusion.  The book delivers only the former.  Wistrich, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on anti-Semitism, lays out an erudite and stunning bill of particulars but never quite states a conclusion about the route taken by the Left from ambivalence to betrayal.  His diffidence tells us something important about Jews and the Left. 

Relevant Links
The Jewish Left, between History and Revelation  Alex Joffe, Jewish Ideas Daily. The association of Jews with leftist ideas and movements has been a fixture of Western politics for the past 150 years. But is the relationship logical and necessary, or is it historical and contingent?
Poison Pen  D. G. Myers, Jewish Ideas Daily. A Nobel Prize-winning German novelist—a former SS soldier, no less—accuses the state of Israel of seeking to exterminate an entire people, and the literary republic yawns.

There are clues in the preface.  There, Wistrich notes the Left’s “disturbing complacency,” its “crippling paralysis of imagination,” and its “consensual point” with anti-Semitism.  But his tone is rueful, and he takes pains to distinguish the disgraceful aspects of the Left’s present from its more respectable past. Speaking of the alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood, personified by Sheikh al-Qaradawi, and British leftists like George Galloway and Ken Livingstone—the “red-green axis,” to which anti-Semitism is fundamental—he states that “what went wrong” was “already prefigured in the 19th-century seedbed of anti-Semitic socialism.”  He goes on to claim, though, that such alliances represent a “complete betrayal of the Enlightenment legacy and a caricature of socialist internationalism,” which would have been inconceivable to Marx, Engels, and Rosa Luxemburg. 

Perhaps—but the subsequent 600 pages do much to demonstrate that anti-Semitism was and is a fixture of the Left.  Wistrich shows, for example, how young Marx—whose notorious 1843 essay “The Jewish Question” depicted German Jewry as a spiritless fossil, identified with capitalism, whose own actions generated anti-Semitism—“supported Jewish emancipation only as a tactical political demand consistent with the principles of bourgeois society while simultaneously advocating its liquidation in the name of a higher social order.”  But Wistrich then wavers, saying only that this “dialectical paradigm” was “undoubtedly open to anti-Semitic interpretations.” 

To the contrary, Marx’s stance, unambiguous and life-long, represents the basic logic and ur-text of the Left’s relationship with the Jews.  Jewish emancipation (including opposition to anti-Semitism) was but a means; society’s full liberation required liquidation of “Jew” as a separate identity and Judaism as a belief system.  The goal was and remains a utopia where, as Marx said, “the Jews will have become impossible.” 

Wistrich discusses in detail well-known figures like Luxemburg and Moses Hess as well as many who are more obscure.  Patterns with contemporary resonance recur.  German socialist leader August Bebel attributed the growth of anti-Semitism in the late 19th century to the lower classes’ “understandable” identification of Jews with capitalist oppression: after all, money was the “secular God of the Jews.”  Thus, social democrats opposed anti-Semitism but “understood” anti-Semites.  German Communist Party founder Franz Mehring not only blamed anti-Semitism on Jews but charged liberals with attempting to “suppress,” as anti-Semitic, speech that said so.  Such “understanding” and cries of censorship are common today. 

Russian Communists were more severe, and Wistrich’s expositions of Bolshevik and Soviet denunciations of the very idea of Jewish nationality are especially valuable.  The exigencies of World War II required temporary indulgence of worldwide Jewish solidarity and even Zionism, and after the war the Soviets supported the creation of Israel as a wedge issue against the West.  But at home, anti-Jewish campaigns began swiftly in 1946; by 1949, they extended to assimilated Jewish intelligentsia, who were accused of lack of “Soviet patriotism.”  The campaigns culminated in Stalin’s 1952 “Doctors' Plot,” which, Wistrich puts it, fused accusations of “Jewish nationalism” and “cosmopolitanism” in an explicit Zionist conspiracy theory also linked to Israel and Western imperialism. 

Khrushchev admitted that there was never really a doctors' plot, but the political benefits of maintaining and exporting anti-Semitism, especially to Arabs and Muslims, were too great to forego.  Thus, Soviet operatives and their supporters resurrected classic Tsarist texts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, accused the Talmud of preaching racism and violence, and condemned the “Nazification” of Israel.  This, not racism or accusations of deicide, is the source of most contemporary anti-Semitism, imported wholesale from the Soviets by the Left and the Muslim world. 

Left unasked by Wistrich—and by Colin Shindler in his recent book Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimization—is whether the Left’s anti-Semitism is inherent or inevitable.  Anti-Semitism is fundamental to the nationalistic and religious right; Jews are necessarily the Other for fascists like the Hungarian Jobbik party.  But amid the universalistic pretensions of the Left, its own logic of anti-Semitism—the logic that turns ambivalence to betrayal—is disguised, overlooked, or forgiven.  Even Wistrich, who lays it all out, refrains from comment except in his regretful preface. 

This logic dictates that real or imagined Jewish claims to “chosenness” will collide with the Left’s demand that identities be homogenized.  When this proves impossible—when  ethnic or national minorities rebel, when class solidarity fails to materialize, when proletarians perceive their interests differently from the revolutionary vanguard, when someone wishes to retain an identity as a thinking individual—someone must be blamed.  It is usually the Jews. 

Examples, historical and contemporary, abound.  Purges of the Austrian and Polish Communist parties were justified by the need to expunge Jews and Zionists.  The failures of Arab nationalist movements, the authoritarian or fascist states they produced, and the Arab Spring rebellions against them were all blamed on machinations by Zionism and Israel—or their very existence.  These phenomena represent not simply “scapegoating” but a consistent totalitarian logic that pervades the Left, flowing from what Isaiah Berlin called a strain of Calvinist predestination in Marxist thought, the “clear division of men into the children of light and the children of darkness,” with the latter “a multitude condemned by history itself to perish.” 

It is this division of humanity into the saved and the unsaved that helps lead the Left, on Wistrich’s own evidence, to the alliances he abhors.  Thus, some Western progressives hail Muslims as inherently anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist allies, swallowing or not even sensing the cognitive dissonance in alliances with patriarchal, theocratic authoritarians who hold progressives in contempt.  In contrast, Jews are the ultimate chimera, ancient yet modern, at once a people, a religion, a nation and a nation-state.  They can never be saved. 

Why does Wistrich come right up to the brink but refrain from these conclusions?  He did the same in his last book, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad.  There, two-thirds of the discussion deals with anti-Semitism from the Left and Islam; but their common logic—the need to deem Jews the Other—is called merely “obsession,” hateful but irrational, capable perhaps of being overcome by reason. 

Like many disappointed veterans of the Left, Wistrich holds with hope over experience.  Many have found themselves in this situation, led to unpalatable conclusions that threaten to undermine their worldviews and lives.  For some, it means abandoning the hope of assimilation or integration or admitting the permanence of anti-Semitism or of Jews as outcasts.  For others it means finding themselves in agreement with “conservatives,” something to be avoided at all costs.  Wistrich’s own motives remain as unclear as his prescriptions; but his book is valuable as a work of massive and learned scholarship and a document of a journey not yet completed. 

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Aron Bally on January 24, 2013 at 6:41 am (Reply)
May be the author should continue his studies as :The Right , Jews and Israel, :
Conservatives, Nationalists , Catholics on the same subject. Now is is very one sided and misses other aspects . Do these other extremely influential philosophies and teachings proove to be
with a more tolerant approach to this subject?
Jacob Wright on January 24, 2013 at 7:27 am (Reply)
Great review! Joffe writes consistently thoughtful pieces.
Tim on January 24, 2013 at 10:28 am (Reply)
Why isn't Mr. Joffe's affiliation with the Middle East Forum noted?
Sam B on January 24, 2013 at 1:28 pm (Reply)
there is a reason no book like this needs to be written about the right, and yet JID doesn't ask "is antisemitism a perennial fixture of the right?"

this is like the movie 'mean girls': "stop trying to make 'fetch' happen!" contemporary conservatives just NEED for there to be a leftist-islamofascist alliance, and they'll keep talking about it forever no matter how untrue it is.
Ellen on January 24, 2013 at 4:17 pm (Reply)
Unfortunately, this sort of book and the very good review are long overdue. The perfidious nature of the 20th century left, and their Jewish useful idiots (or should that be, useful Jewish idiots?) is a subject very undercovered, for obvious reasons.

The most obvious of those obvious reasons is that the sort of person who would write a scholarly book on this subject would be a Jewish academic at a major academic institution. Oops. But that is precisely where the anti-Semites of the left and their Jewish apologists and lackeys are most prevalent and frequently quite prominent. How many Jewish scholars at such institutions have the courage to stand up to this intellectual charlatanry and evil, let alone to fight against it? It could be dangerous to your pursuit of tenure or publications.

Good of Professor Wistrich to put the pursuit of truth before friendships in the faculty lounge. At least in his case, he already has tenure and a distinguished reputation, so there's no need to grovel anymore.
Chaim Casper on January 24, 2013 at 8:21 pm (Reply)
I never cease to be amazed at the "unique" viewpoint of the people of the right who are convinced that anti-Semitism is the sole provence of the left. These politically right/conservative people seem to think that they have a monopoly on being pro-Israel. Yet, correct me if I am wrong, fascism is a fixture of the right. (You are correct that communism [e.g. the USSR which last time I checked is gone] and socialism [e.g. certain Israeli kibbutzim which last time I checked are pro-Israel] are fixtures of the left). Are you saying that fascists are pro-Israel and pro-Jewish? Further, are you saying that David Duke and his fellow KKKers are pro-Israel and pro-Jewish? What about the John Birch Society members? The American Nazi Party? The Saudis? The list goes on.

The point is very simple: Yes, some on the left are anti-Jewish and anti-Israel. But so are some of the right. Grow up and stop throwing stones at people you politically disagree with.
    Mark George on January 27, 2013 at 4:38 am (Reply)
    Fascism is not of the right, it is solely of the left. Fascism is socialism not capitalism. Fascism approved of abortion-left. Fascism instituted universal healthcare-left. Fascism took away guns-left. Fascism did not allow freedom of worship-left. Although fascism was opposed to homosexuality it murdered them where we on the right do not impose the death penalty for said offense. David Duke is a leftist as are KKK members. The John Birch Society is the only one I know that is politically conservative, but are anti-Semitic. Fortunately they are few in numbers.

    Point being you need to educate yourself about fascism, because fascism is 95% liberalism not conservatism. This is a lie of the left to blind you to the truth concerning their ties to fascism.
Kalman Neuman on January 24, 2013 at 10:59 pm (Reply)
I don't no about the book, but the review refers to "the left" as a clear and defined entity. Is he talking only about Marxists. Are social-democrats part of "the left" and are they all anti-semetic? For example, who is "the left" in Israel (besides the Communist Party, comprised mostly of Arabs) and are they Anti semitic?
Y. Ben-David on January 25, 2013 at 4:58 am (Reply)
It is incorrect to state that "Right-wingers" are inherently antisemtic or that "Left-wingers" are inherehtly antisemitic. It is incorrect to say an individual's predeliction to one particular political ideology or another makes him more prone to antisemitism. Antisemitis is a HUMAN affliction. It is not rational. It is true that in the 20th century up to the 1970's, it seemed that the "Left" (or the liberals in the US) opposed antisemitism more than did the "Right" (or the Conservatives) and that things appear to have flip-flopped since them, but there is nothing ineherent in the philosophies of either ideology or grouping that makes them inherent for or against antisemitism. Antisemitism, in the form that we know it today has existed for over 2000 years and it will be with us into the future and we Jews have to learn to live with it and confront it head-on, not be content to say "if only everyone in the world was ------ (fill in the blank--liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian, etc) then the problem of antisemitism would disappear once and for all. I give credit to people like Leon Pinsker and Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl for having the foresight to realize that the Emanicipation and other 'liberal' movements would end the problem of antisemitism and to realize the Jews would only be safe in their own sovereign, nation-state Israel.
Ellen on January 25, 2013 at 5:47 am (Reply)
No, anti-Semitism is not the sole province of the left. The reason this is a news story is the same reason that "man bites dog" would be a news story. The claim to fame of the left and the main reason for its existence (initially, at least) was that it purported to be interested in the welfare of all mankind, and especially the underdog, the little person - the working class person. Leftists believed in universal brotherhood of man and goodwill unconnected to social class, nationality and religion. It was that claim - or pretense - that attracted so many Jews into left wing movements in the 19th century and even into the Democratic Party of the US today.

Showing, therefore, that the contemporary left is not morally superior to the old right in its anti-Semitic attitudes, particularly in the parts of the world where they are now so terribly useful (ie, the MidEast), makes it very clear that its secular ideology of universal brotherhood is a not-so-pious fraud. At least the old rightwingers didn't claim to view Judaism as an acceptable ideology or Jews as acceptable people. They were honest in their prejudices, while the leftists are just big, fat liars.
Tom Solomon on January 25, 2013 at 10:28 am (Reply)
You're having to dig mighty deep to bring up David Duke and the KKK.
The point is clear and undebatable. Today's current crop of anti-semitism is from the left.
Cathy on January 25, 2013 at 4:41 pm (Reply)
Joffe states clearly: Anti-Semitism is fundamental to the nationalistic and religious right. But his conflation of (American) progressive movements with Communism and universalism is, I think, inaccurate.
Jerry Blaz on January 25, 2013 at 8:01 pm (Reply)
I believe that this oversimplistic stating of "left" or "right" as being the home of antisemitism is just epiphenominal to the phenomenon of "anti-Semitism." The study of anti-Semitism stands on its own, has its own vast scholarship, research and literature. After all, Jews are a literate people (also a justification of Jew hatred). They recognized the prejudice and discrimination that they suffered. Certainly, anyone with normal intelligence who lived through the middle of the 20th century understands that the greatest anti-Semitism in history was not a product of the left but of the Nazi party, the most definitively rightwing anti-leftist political incarnation in history, and also the greatest destroyer of Jews because they were Jews.

Certainly there is anti-Semitism on the left, too. But to set up the left as the iconic anti-Semite fails to portray an accurate description of who is a Jew's iconic enemy. It may be the extremity of a belief like communism or fascism for the followers makes the Jew into the "other" who is the enemy. I do know that anti-Semitism exists, and it is a perniciously adaptable hatred to almost every human, particularly if that human is not Jewish.

Right now, in the U.S. as in Israel, a conservative wind is blowing, and I can tell you that in the U.S. if that winds gets strong enough is will expose the right's anti-semitism in the U.S. If that wind gets too strong in Israel, all we can hope is that they'll find somebody else to hate. I can only repeat Tevyeh's plea to God: Can't you chose someone else for a change?
Ron Lewenbergq on January 26, 2013 at 12:27 am (Reply)
There seem to be an unfortunate number of leftists here who wrote their comments without reading, or otherwise without comprehending this piece. They claim that Joffe ignored antisemitism on the right. This piece is about LEFTIST ANTISEMITISM. Nonetheless, Joffe wrote " Anti-Semitism is fundamental to the nationalistic and religious right; Jews are necessarily the Other for fascists like the Hungarian Jobbik party." While I consider the Iranian-funded Jobbik to be traitors to Hungary and not nationalists at all, Joffe does see them as right-wing nationalists and fascists.

Not only can the whining leftists not read, but I wonder about their cognitive skills. Antisemitism on the right is well known. It's existence on the left is what is ignored.
Ellen on January 27, 2013 at 4:12 pm (Reply)
Exactly Ron. That is the "man bites dog" story that I referred to. Liberal Jews have been loath to admit that the ideology they genuflected to for the last century has turned out to be no better than the old monarchistic right in Europe, aligned with the established churches, who saw Jews as a particularistic threat to their claim to be the bearers of a universalistic conservative truth.

The Left in our day (1960's onward) suffers from the same psychopathology. They claim to be the bearers of a universal message of liberalism and its variants offshoots (feminism, etc) and can't tolerate the obstinate and paroachial-seeming particularism of Jews who have the nerve to suggest that traditional Judaism has something to contribute to the contemporary world that is quite different, and often opposed, to their liberalism.

Liberal Jews are always ranting about how awful American conservatives are, even though most of them hardly know or talk to anyone of that persuasion. If they would only visit the Bible Belt of their own country they would see a population more supportive of Israel and Jews than any collection of limousine liberals in any faculty lounge ever would be. Read Meir Soloveichik's article in the current Weekly Standard for his view on this subject. He brings more depth and understanding to this topic than any tirade I have had the misfortune to listen to from liberal Jews, who literally have no idea what they are talking about.
cassandra on January 27, 2013 at 4:14 pm (Reply)
Would anyone please define what left and right mean anymore? If national socialism and Italian fascism were supposed to have been right wing, while USSR socialism and Mao's communism were supposed to have been left wing, does the left-right thing actually mean anything anymore?
    Woland on January 29, 2013 at 12:28 am (Reply)
    Excellent question. The problem with these definitions is that people constantly conflate them with liberal/conservative dichotomy. Right/left are economical and political notions where left is associated with centralization of power or resources while right is its opposite. Liberal/conservative defines moral attitudes. They are completely independent from the former. In Russia for example, liberals are on the right and conservatives, where 99% of all russian ani-Semites come from, are on the left. Hitler and Mussolini were also left concervatives. In general you will find less anti-semitizm in less centralized and less orthodox societies which would be on a liberal-right spectrum. Sounds confusing, but only in cultures where left is associated with liberal, in many other cultures it makes total sense.
Shlomo on January 30, 2013 at 7:06 pm (Reply)
I am truly disappointed by Joffe's op-ed. Like everybody else, I am also disappointed by the Left. But it was the Left that liberated the Jews from the ghetto. It provided a vehicle for Jewish solidarity with others, grounded in a quest for social justice. I see no reason why I can't support Obamacare, but disagree with Obama's friendship with the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter is his error, not mine. The Muslim Brotherhood is not, by any definition, a Leftist organization. Hitlerism was a primarily a nationalist movement. German tribalism was its driver. Let's not allow doctrinaire neo-cons to rewrite history to fit their current political agenda. That can prevent us from seeing the world clearly. That would be dangerous.

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