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Antisemitism still haunts the European left

Simply by looking at the record of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France’s main far-left party La France Insoumise, we can quickly conclude that he is someone who needs educating.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2013 in Toulouse. Credit: Pierre-Selim via Wikimedia Commons.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2013 in Toulouse. Credit: Pierre-Selim via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin last week ordered the dissolution of a Catholic traditionalist association named “Civitas” following claims of antisemitism against one of its leaders. The individual in question was the essayist Pierre Hillard. He recently delivered a speech in which he opined that the emancipation of the Jews in 1791, two years after the French Revolution, had opened the door to the mass immigration of non-Christians, and therefore a return to the days of Louis XVI—when there were no civil or political rights for Jews or any other minorities—was eminently desirable.

Darmanin acted following a storm of protest from organizations like the French Union of Jewish Students, and the International League Against Racism and Antisemitism, whom you would expect to speak out on a matter like this. But one of the loudest voices of condemnation came from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France’s main far-left party La France Insoumise (LFI—“France Rising”). When Darmanin made his announcement shuttering Civitas, Mélenchon went on to express his satisfaction, writing on Twitter that the interior minister, whom he normally loathes, had given the “clear answer” that “antisemitism must be punished.”

Well, yes. But antisemitism is not simply a matter for law enforcement; far more important is education so that people understand, through the study of antisemitic ideology and history, why its message is so deadly. And simply by looking at the record Mélenchon on this topic, we can quickly conclude that he is someone who needs educating.

A report on antisemitism on the European left just out by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) includes a salutary reminder of Mélenchon’s antisemitic comments in the section on France. In 2013, he let out a classic antisemitic dog whistle when he accused then-Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, who is Jewish, of no longer “thinking in French but thinking in the language of international finance.” Later in that same decade, when Mélenchon’s comrade in the United Kingdom—former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn—was in the firing line over a series of antisemitic scandals during his tenure at the party’s helm, the French leader asserted that “so-called Jews” orchestrated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were out to destroy Corbyn’s reputation. “Corbyn had to endure without help the crude accusation of antisemitism from the Chief Rabbi of England and the various Likud networks of influence,” he remarked. “Instead of fighting back, he spent his time apologizing and giving pledges. (…) I will never give in to it for my part.”

To be sure, Mélenchon hasn’t given in, demeaning the leadership of Crif, the French Jewish representative organization, as “communitarians” (something of a pejorative term in France) and bizarrely arguing that Ḗric Zemmour, a far-right candidate in last year’s presidential election who hails from a Jewish family, represented “traditions that are closely linked to Judaism.” Yet, when a reactionary Catholic organization revives the long-standing antisemitic traditions of the Church, Mélenchon has no problem making his outrage heard.

Why the double standard? Why identify and condemn antisemitism from the right but not from within the left’s own ranks?

A large part of the answer sheds light upon a problem for the left not just in France, but in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom—the other countries covered by the ADL report—as well. In essence, antisemitism is not seen as a pernicious ideology targeting Jews as the root of the world’s ills, but rather as an instrument to be deployed in political conflicts. If antisemitism comes from a source that you would have no truck with anyway—in this case, an organization that believes fervently that Catholic doctrine should lie at the foundations of law and public policy—then there is no hesitation in condemning it, particularly when, as was true with the Civitas episode, there is no mention of Zionism or the State of Israel. But if antisemitism comes from an ally, like Corbyn, then you are duty-bound to deny it and dismiss it as a smear. In such an environment, any analytical consistency and certainly any attempt to point out the glaring overlap between far-left and extreme-right antisemitic tropes—dual loyalty, financial clout, disproportionate political and cultural influence—becomes impossible.

While the ADL report highlights the differences between the four countries under the microscope, there are also some key commonalities. “In all four countries, the two dominant findings were that antisemitism was used in anti-Israel contexts and in anti-capitalist contexts,” it observed. “In anti-Israel contexts, antisemitic themes included (1) accusations that Jewish cabals control politics and media and prevent either criticism of Israel or support for Palestine; (2) Holocaust trivialization as a means of arguing that Palestinians are no less victims today than Jews were during the Holocaust; (3) equating Israel with the Nazi regime, thus demonizing Israel; (4) accusations of antisemitism are in bad faith and employed to silence criticism of Israel. In anti-capitalist contexts, antisemitic themes included (1) Jewish control of financial markets; (2) Jewish obsession with money; and (3) Jewish exploitation of workers.”

The point, however, is that large swathes of the European left are either incapable of recognizing these themes as antisemitic, or they believe that the upsurge in hatred against Jews is solely a result of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. “They have learnt nothing from what happened to them in Europe. Nothing,” ranted Tariq Ali, a British far-left leader, at an anti-Israel rally in May 2021. “Every time they bomb Gaza, every time they attack Jerusalem—that is what creates antisemitism. Stop the occupation, stop the bombing and casual antisemitism will soon disappear.”

Ali did not spell out the lesson that he believes the Jews should have learned from the Nazi era, but the implication of his words is that they are receiving their just desserts for dispossessing the Palestinians. And that their choice now is to either give in—and thereby suddenly and miraculously banish antisemitism from public discourse, or to carry on fighting and accept antisemitism as an inevitable consequence. Until this mode of thinking is banished from the left, Jews will have little reason to trust its representatives, even on those occasions when they do condemn antisemitism.  

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