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Labour and the legacy of antisemitism

We are currently living through a period when “antisemitism” seems to be on the rise in Europe, and is now a hot topic of debate in Britain, because of a few clumsy statements by some prominent Labour politicians (along with a very few statements that do appear to have an actual antisemitic animus). Both in Britain and in the United States the leaders of the BDS movement (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) are frequently assailed as being antisemitic because of their being against Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Yet, a word like “antisemitism” should not be bandied about carelessly. It is far too emotive, and even explosive a term to be as irresponsibly handled as it has been of late in politics and the press. Antisemitism was not just some psychological state of mind but a modern ideology and political movement, that had major consequences in the Holocaust. As such, modern antisemitism differs in crucial aspects from what is often called antisemitism but is more accurately called Jew-hatred, or, more neutrally, hostility to Jews.

The very word “antisemitism” is deeply problematic. Why use this fancy, scientific word for what in many ways is such a traditional and common phenomenon? The term was invented by Jew-haters, and the reason for using the term was to make Jew-hatred respectable: modern and “scientific”, an ideology and political movement that would oppose “Semitism”, which was supposedly the adverse influence of the “Semitic” race(s) on Western society and culture. “Semitic” originated as a linguistic category, to describe the family of various Middle Eastern languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, but came to be a racial category, over against the “Aryan” race. It was from the start almost exclusively aimed at Jews, as the primary “Semites”, but not only, and there have been many instances when Arabs have also been “Semites” and discriminated against as such by “anti-Semites”. But let us assume that antisemitism was aimed against Jews; it is key to understand that it was a modern ideology that used, at least rhetorically, the language of race to make its argument.  Antisemitism as a movement also put Jews at the very centre of world developments, as the negative pole against which “Aryan” (Western) culture needed to battle. This is why, historically, most of what we view as antisemitism was not really antisemitism, as such.

Hostility against Jews in Antiquity was not antisemitism. Ancient Jewish history was full of enemies of the Jews, and from a Judaeocentric point of view this all looks like Jews being at the centre of history, but for an imperial power like Rome, they were not: they were just rebellious subjects, particularly rebellious subjects, who claimed, idiosyncratically, that there was only one god, theirs, but just that. This led to the (second and final, so far) destruction of the Temple, and to much animosity against Jews by many Roman figures. Yet that is only part of the story; another part is that the Roman authorities also accommodated Jewish idiosyncrasies for long stretches of their rule over them.

Once Christianity appeared, from within Judaism, then there was a serious, potentially lethal, rivalry between two monotheistic faiths. No question. Yet even here this religious anti-Judaism was just that, a religiously based animosity, against Jews maintaining their religious beliefs against their Christian rivals. It was not against Jews as a “race”, and the Church wanted to convince Jews of the truth of Christ, so accepted converts, at least in principle. When Jews refused, this was a problem for the Church, but the Western Church’s answer was not to demand the elimination of Jews. The awful slaughters of Jews in the First Crusade were against Church teachings, and indeed against the specific orders of members of the Church hierarchy in medieval Germany, for instance. Jews were the one group tolerated within Western Christendom, ironically, as long as they accepted subjugation, so they could act, eventually, as witnesses to Christianity’s Truth. Yet, formal subjugation did not necessarily mean Jews were constantly the victims of oppression. As Salo Baron put it, famously, the “lachrymose history” of the Jews as eternal victims is at variance to much of Jewish experience in European medieval and early modern history, where many Jews prospered at various times and places, and were often of a higher social status than, for instance, vileins or serfs. But the point here is that anti-Judaism was not, generally speaking, racial in its definition of who was the Jewish enemy. The Spanish Inquisition did lead to this conclusion, in Iberia, but that was not the rule.

Children sheltering among the rubble of the Gaza strip, 2016. Beller argues that while
Children sheltering among the rubble of the Gaza strip, 2016. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

It took a modern, biologically based understanding of human nature to make Jewish identity a racial as opposed to spiritual/religious concept. So it was really only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that hatred against Jews became “antisemitism”, as a reaction to the success of Jews in overcoming the subjugation that had been allotted to them by the Church. The antisemitic ideology and political movement that developed then, most successfully in Central Europe, was an unstable combination of racial, religious, cultural and social animosities towards Jews, and a very large component of it was a hypertrophic version of xenophobic ethnonationalism that sought to bolster (some would say invent) national identity by identifying what the national group was not. In this strategy of negative integration, anyone with another identity could be excluded as not fully belonging. Hence Germans could know they were Germans because they knew Jews were not Germans, and should therefore be excluded from German society—at least discriminated against, certainly not treated as equal, as they were in a liberal political system.

Antisemitism as a political movement was generally rather unsuccessful in the early nineteenth century, the big exception being the Christian Social dominance of Vienna. However, the catastrophe of the First World War, the ensuing breakup of Central Europe into “national” states, and then the economic calamity of the Slump, led to the success of fascist, authoritarian and nationalist political parties in much of the region, culminating in the conquest of power of the Nazis in Germany in 1933. It was in this context that the implicit logic of antisemitism, that Jews were a foreign body in the nation that needed to be excluded and expunged, reached its appalling, extreme conclusion in the Holocaust.

Little if any of this has to do with a separate form of animosity toward the “Jewish state” of Israel and its supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish, that is now causing such concern in Britain as it applies to the Labour Party. No one in the Labour Party has suggested excluding British Jews from British society because they are Jewish, or even of depriving them of their equal rights as citizens. If they did that would be clearly antisemitism, but it would be entirely against the egalitarian and secular traditions of the Labour Party as well. Instead there is an animosity among many members of the Labour Party, especially those with a Muslim or Middle Eastern background, against Israel and its founding ideology, Zionism. The reason is fairly obvious: Israel’s founding was enabled partly by Western guilt about the Holocaust, but took place at the expense of the sovereign interests of the rest of the population of Palestine. Israel’s existence as a Jewish nation-state within the pre-1967 borders has in effect been (grudgingly) accepted by most of the Arab and Muslim world, but the occupation of the territories conquered by Israel in 1967, now getting on for half a century ago, has not been.

Moreover, the policies of Israel towards those territories, especially in the West Bank, have, understandably, caused much hostility toward Israel and its supporters, among whom, again quite understandably, are most of British Jewry. Some of this hostility has its causes in an undue dislike of Jews, and it might well be that some individuals in Britain indulge antisemitic prejudices in supporting pro-Palestinian groups, but attempts to thus call this hostility to Israel “the new antisemitism” are, to my mind, misplaced and illegitimate. Antisemitism is about excluding people simply because of who they are, and on an unfair, unreasonable basis. Instead, in the current antagonism toward Israel and its supporters, most of it is fairly clearly a result of hostilities caused by a real national conflict over the territory of Israel/Palestine. Call that anti-Zionism, call it anti-Israelism, but it is not antisemitism.

Featured image credit: Israeli Flag. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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