Blaming anti-Semitism on capitalism

Some on the left are acknowledging that the hatred of Jews is a disturbing reality within our society, and not some ideologically contrived phantom.

A rally in Jerusalem held in solidarity with Jews in the Diaspora following a wave of anti-Semitic attacks. Jan. 5, 2020. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
A rally in Jerusalem held in solidarity with Jews in the Diaspora following a wave of anti-Semitic attacks. Jan. 5, 2020. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

It is progress of sorts. This week, one of the leading magazines of the American left published an article that took the phenomenon of anti-Semitism seriously.

I call it progress because for a good 20 years, the vocal and resurgent Socialist left on both sides of the Atlantic has denounced anti-Semitism not as something that non-Jews “do” to Jews, but as something that the Jewish establishment and its Israeli masters “do” to adversaries of Zionism, non-Jew and Jew alike. In this environment, some left-wingers have even worn the badge of anti-Semitism with a perverse pride, as if it were a medal bestowed in the struggle to speak truth to power on behalf of the Palestinians.

But now, faced with a rising tide of anti-Semitic violence in America and internationally, some on the left are acknowledging that the hatred of Jews is a disturbing reality within our society, and not some ideologically contrived phantom. “After dropping for more than a decade, the number of anti-Jewish attacks more than doubled between 2015 and 2017,” writes Aaron Freedman in the latest issue of Jacobin magazine. “In 2018—the year that a gunman murdered eleven congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the deadliest antisemitic assault in US history—the number of antisemitic assaults doubled. In New York City, where nearly one in every seven people is Jewish, antisemitic crimes have jumped 21 percent in the past year.”

In his article, Freedman argues that he has uncovered both the reason for anti-Semitism’s stubborn persistence and, by the same token, the key to its defeat. The emboldening of white nationalism in the Trump era is the “main” part of the story, he says, but he goes on to observe that “Trump’s victory alone does not explain the spate of incidents in New York, committed in many cases by black individuals in both planned assaults and apparently random street encounters.”

Freedman also acknowledges the lack of creative thinking on the left when it comes to anti-Semitism, along with the tendency to overlook the problem entirely when it comes from minorities—African-Americans, Muslims—who are themselves the targets of racism. “[W]hile progressives have admirably emphasized solidarity between groups facing racism and antisemitism, they have largely failed to articulate a response beyond throwing up their hands and feebly condemning ‘the world’s oldest hate,’ ” Freedman writes.

What follows is a rallying assurance that anti-Semitism can actually be defeated. “Antisemitism is neither eternal nor inevitable,” he insists. “It is not a natural feature of human society, sprouting up among us as predictably as weeds in a garden,” so long as we rip out the phenomenon at its roots. For that operation to succeed, according to Freedman, no less than the overthrow of capitalism is required.

Many readers will be familiar with this argument, which has been made in one form or another on the left since the middle of the 19th century. It holds that capitalism distracts its enemies by directing them to scapegoats, typically the Jews, who then take the heat for the unfairness and excesses of the system, enabling the ruling class to continue undisturbed its exploitation of nature and labor in the pursuit of fiscal profit. August Bebel, a German Socialist, even coined the term “Socialism of Fools” to describe this tendency of blaming inequality and deprivation on supposedly “Jewish” machinations.

For Freedman, there is still plenty of mileage in this vintage notion. “The foul stench of antisemitism lingers in the air of capitalist society because it is cruelly rational,” he asserts. “As long as there are capitalists, they will need groups to blame for their oppression. The only way to defeat antisemitism, then, is to win socialism.”

Freedman unfortunately glosses over the anticipated objection of some readers—namely, that we already tried this, and it didn’t work. The institutionalized oppression of Jewish communities in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries “was not the result of too much socialism, but too little,” claims Freedman. “By the 1930s soviet democracy was dead, and the institutional power and wealth of the pre-Communist ruling class had been replaced not by common ownership but by the party elite.”

This formulation is problematic not because it is technically false, but because of the vital explanatory layers that it leaves out. Soviet democracy didn’t suddenly disappear with the death of Vladimir Lenin; the historical record amply shows that the Bolsheviks were actively suppressing dissent well before Stalin purged the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party in the 1930s. The Jewish community, no less than other groups in Soviet Russia, knew this from firsthand experience. Shortly after the 1917 revolution, Zionist organizations were banned, the teaching of Hebrew was proscribed, and Jewish culture became the exclusive preserve of the “Yevsektsiya,” as the Jewish section of the Communist Party was known.

All this was in keeping with the historic suspicion on the left of Jewish nationalism, separatism and self-expression: Allow too much of any of these, and the battle for socialism will be compromised. Indeed, Karl Marx himself argued that if Jews were to be emancipated, both the Jews and society more broadly had to first ditch “Judaism”—a term understood by the founder of communism to be synonymous with the “huckstering” that distinguished modern capitalism. “Judaism,” aka capitalism, is for Marx the main source of anti-Semitism, and without capitalism, there will be no purpose to either anti-Semitism or to the continued existence of the Jews as a distinct people.

It follows, therefore, that if a new generation of Socialists is to tackle the question of anti-Semitism in our own time constructively, it needs to be cognizant of these and similar historical experiences that Jews have encountered from the left. Critically, the dogma that capitalism necessarily breeds anti-Semitism while socialism is innately hostile to it is perhaps the weakest aspect of this thinking.

Unpalatable as this is for many on the left, those Jewish generations that survived the Holocaust experienced a relative golden age at the same time that capitalism, exemplified by the muscle of the American economy, transformed the lifestyles and social expectations of the post-war world. Far from being the source of anti-Semitism, capitalism has exposed the frailty of anti-Semitic beliefs: their abject failure to compete in any marketplace of ideas that is not controlled by a totalitarian state, alongside a reliance upon ignorance and unprocessed rage for their promotion. The left needs to look elsewhere for the answers it seeks.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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