Antisemitism: Obsession or Logic?

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, January 24, 2013

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. 

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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