Twitter is aflame once again with fiery accusations of antisemitism. As if we hadn’t all enjoyed the thoroughly edifying earlier instalments of this particular three, five, ten-act play? Forgive my cynicism but my initial reaction to this and previous variations on this theme is that many involved don’t give a damn about antisemitism. Nor can anyone seem to agree on what it is.
Antisemitism in the Age of Corbynism
The spark for the latest conflagration has been, as now seems depressingly inevitable for any debate involving “the left” in British politics, something said or done by someone related to Corbynism. What then follows the viral reaction is a process of mediation through mainstream platforms before everyone decides whether or not to condemn or support it and/or the person. The person in question is Jackie Walker, a member of Labour and Momentum. Not knowing anything about her nor being a supporter of either the party or the campaign group means I have no particular interest in defending Walker. I think her comments questioning security at Jewish schools i.e. whether Jewish people are more at risk of violence or oppression in British society are entirely valid – Islamophobia and anti-blackness structure contemporary politics, state violence and discourse a hundred times more. I have rarely if ever suffered much discrimination on the basis that my mother is Jewish. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t antisemitic attacks or that those more identifiable as Jewish don’t suffer far more than me. Not to mention that everywhere is different, and a Jewish person living in, for instance, present-day Hungary would undoubtedly be at greater risk of oppression and violence. But the point stands that the level of antisemitism in British society shouldn’t be exaggerated for political effect, especially as other forms of racism are seeing a marked upsurge in violence.
I also think discussing definitions of antisemitism, as Walker attempted to do, should not be off limits. Indeed, for Jews (of which she is one), it’s a necessity. Such debate (itself a bulwark of Jewish culture) is crucial because, contrary to what many are saying, how antisemitism is defined remains a much-disputed terrain of historical struggle & intellectual enquiry both inside and outside of the Jewish community.
Jackie Walker seemed to question the need for marking, or at least centring, the Holocaust with Holocaust Memorial Day. The way she did this was clumsy because she made it sound like she was minimising the scale of horror wrought by the Nazis, rather than merely draw attention to other groups of people exterminated by the Nazi state or other genocides of recent and less recent history. I remember my grandma and grandpa, a Jewish American POW held in solitary confinement and tortured by the Nazis, always emphasised to me growing up that “never again” meant anywhere, to any group of people. Walker mentions that only post-1945 genocides are marked on Holocaust Memorial Day and asks why the mass enslavement and murder of the Atlantic Slave Trade should not similarly “count”? Perhaps the marking of a day is of less importance here but this is a good question and one which Alana Lentin answers here. Lentin explains that a dehistoricised and “frozen” conception of “race” and racism is promoted in society today,
“the longer history of race as a political project, beginning with the invasion of the Americas through the spread of European colonialism, the expropriation of lands and resources and the genocides of indigenous peoples, the institution of slavery and later indentured servitude, became severed from the telling of the story of race, leaving just the specific moment of Nazism.”
Other comments I’ve seen linked to Walker about Jews being responsible for the slave trade are, however, wrong and dangerous. This is not only inaccurate and helps to reproduce common antisemitic tropes, it is also shows a bad understanding of how capital works – here seen as a conspiracy orchestrated by small groups of people rather than a set of particular social relations that spread and come to dominate society.
But I can’t help but find it more than distasteful to watch an army of pompous, reactionary MPs and journalists, many of whom have supported and constructed Britain’s institutionally racist immigration detention and border regime – living evidence that racism remains a salient arbiter of life and death, not just a matter of name-calling – pile onto a black woman as they suddenly decide to show off their anti-racist credentials.
When people are reacting to what Jackie Walker said, their reactions simply cannot be disentangled from their interest in the overarching matter at hand – a furious power struggle over the future of the Labour Party. People are playing position – whether it’s to take a swipe at Corbyn, to protect the image of Momentum or simply to make themselves look good. Interventions here cannot escape this situation’s own particular genesis, which means that while a discussion about the nature of antisemitism is to be welcomed the conditions out of which this discussion has developed appear unlikely to lead to an enlightened exploration of it.
The right of the Labour Party, bolstered and dragged along by the right of the country at large and the structural tendencies of mediating institutions, have tried everything in the last year to defame, delegitimise and depose Corbyn and cut off the head of a demographic and organisational challenge to their prevailing technocratic rule of the Labour Party. The weaponisation of antisemitism – through the deployment of a narrow definition of it and the false claim of its particularity to “the left” – has, without question, been part of this. But this is not the same thing as claiming that there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party, among Corbyn supporters or across wider socialist, Marxist and anarchist traditions. Because there is and I’ve seen it in all these places.
Corbyn’s reaction to accusations of antisemitism amongst his supporters in the past has been “there is unity in the party in opposing any form of anti-Semitism, any form of racism,” and other statements similar to this. This mythologising about the anti-racism of the Labour Party and the workers’ movement is part of the problem. Apart from it patently being untrue – Labour are a party that seeks to rule through the capitalist state, the wellspring of racism in society, and the role played by trade unions at Grunwick were no anomaly – this mythologising serves to homogenise the historical production of racisms and calcify them into a moralistic framework whereby “racism” is produced by contextless “ignorance” and “hatred”. Antisemitism isn’t “racism like any other”, it has its own particular history and mode of operation and needs to be analysed as such. Indeed, it now seems clear that the cynical deployment of antisemitism accusations by MPs and commentators exemplifies this particularity – these people wouldn’t dream of making anti-blackness their favoured campaigning tool of parliamentary political point-scoring because it wouldn’t and couldn’t work in the same way.
My intention in writing this piece is not to perpetuate the trend for squeezing all writing through the funnel of the Corbyn Labour saga and it certainly isn’t to either condemn or exonerate a particular individual. Rather, I want us to come to a clearer understanding of what antisemitism is, how it operates and its relation to capitalism, broader racism and class.
Antisemitism in Focus
Let’s first define our terms. Antisemitism has wildly different definitions depending on who you ask – I remember at school that kids used to look at me when they made a Jewish joke to see if I “approved” – but subjective definitions can’t really cut the mustard here. Not when definitions of Jewishness itself are also in dispute. There is a country of nearly eight and a half million people, with a large diaspora of extra-national supporters, many of whom will believe Jewishness to be a biological religious ethnos, now consecrated as a modern nation-state on the land of its ancient peoples. To people who believe this to be true, the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism makes total sense, and indeed the two do sometimes overlap. But to oppose the actions of a nation-state, or even its existence, is not the same as wanting to attack or get rid of a particular group of people. When it comes to Israel and people’s position on it, including most on “the left”, my question is always: “yes I oppose the state of Israel, I oppose all states. Why don’t you?”
I think Moishe Postone’s bifurcation of historic and modern antisemitism is a useful one. Postone distinguishes between the centuries-long oppression of Jews since ascendant Christianity and the variant of antisemitism that emerges out of late 19th century European capitalist industrialisation. The kind of power attributed to the figure of the Jew is unique among other racial taxonomies. In traditional antisemitism this includes the power to “kill God, unleash the Bubonic plague and, more recently, to introduce capitalism and socialism.” Quite the C.V. Furthermore, the historical enforcement of Jews as moneylenders under the rule of medieval Christendom gives birth to the long association of Jewishness with money and greed.
Postone’s formulation of modern antisemitism has it that with the rapid development of industrialisation in the 19th century, the attribution of power to Jews becomes that much more abstracted, intangible and totalising – especially amidst a wave of 19th century nationalism spreading across Europe with Jews becoming that much more the people with no nation. The Jew is no longer the moneylender, instead the Jews control the money system. Antisemitism becomes a central pillar for explaining a complicated and confusing world. The huge technological and social change wrought by capitalist development was transforming the environment and upending certainties and ways of life and this became associated with Jewish control.
Of course Jews were also seen as being behind the emergence of socialism and social democracy at this time which might suggest that this surge of a reformulated antisemitism constituted a revolt against modernity itself. Postone here argues that Nazism is constructed out of these elements. The massive explosion of capitalist development followed by war, social catastrophe and capitalist crisis paves the way for a restructuring of accumulation and a redirection of nationalist ideology in Germany based on the ‘volk’ (or German race) which highlighted the virtue of concrete, industrial labour in the service of family and nation whilst abstract financial capital, under the control of the nationless, untrustworthy Jew, must be expunged entirely to restore health to the nation.
It is up for debate whether Moishe Postone’s explanation of the Holocaust and his formulation of modern antisemitism through the use of Marxian value theory is entirely adequate to explain such momentous historical events. However, his exposition of the so-called “anticapitalism” of Nazism is extremely important. The desire to be rid of the “Rothschilds” or whatever other names are used to describe the supposed shady puppeteers controlling global finance (and governance) remains extremely prevalent today among people who identify as conservatives, liberals, social democrats, socialists and anarchists. Perhaps such a diversity lends credibility to the suggestion made by Theodor Adorno, as well as other thinkers, that this form of antisemitism is even immanent to modern capitalism.
Apart from being an inadequate understanding of what it is that dominates our lives – does the continuation of industrial production and wage labour ad infinitum somehow minus financing institutions (without even mention of ongoing imperialism) sound like utopia to you? – this also remains the source of much antisemitism on “the left”. It is important that while everyone is slinging the mud of antisemitism around people stop to think about what antisemitism is and how it figures in our understanding of how capitalist society works. The idea that behind the hostile coverage of Corbynism is an elite “conspiracy”, or that “the banksters” being “greedy” and “evil” is the cause of all the world’s problems is a framework for misunderstanding the world that works best with “the Jews” at the top of it. One need only search a few choice words on Google or Youtube to see that apparently “they” still are.
by Michael Richmond | @Sisyphusa