Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
People seem oddly shocked. Anti-Semitism at Oxford University’s Labour Club? The Labour Club? Aren’t Leftists meant to be empathetic and compassionate and interested in the welfare of minority groups?
Evidently not when it comes to this minority. Anti-Semitism has an old and cruel history on the Left. The man who coined the word “socialism” was an anti-Semite; the man who popularised the phrase “anti-Semitism” was a socialist.
The former was the nineteenth-century French radical, Pierre Leroux. “When we speak of the Jews,” he wrote, “we mean the Jewish spirit – the spirit of profit, of lucre, of gain, of speculation; in a word, the banker’s spirit.”
The latter was a German Leftist called Wilhelm Marr. “Anti-Semitism is a Socialist movement,” he pronounced, “only nobler and purer in form than Social Democracy”.
Before going any further, I should make clear that Oxford’s Labour Club is as entitled as any of us to the presumption of innocence. The seriousness of an allegation doesn’t shift the burden of proof. The accusation in this instance is certainly serious: Labour members are charged, not just with being too aggressively pro-Hamas or too free with their anti-Zionist rhetoric, but with making Jewish students feel targeted and uncomfortable. Then again, anyone who has been involved with undergraduate politics knows that wild accusations are sometimes thrown around. The rest of us should let Labour conclude its investigation.
Let me, instead, address a broader and perhaps more alarming trend. It may be social media, or it may be the way that the far Left was galvanised by the recent Labour leadership contest, but I’ve noticed that anti-Semitism these days often dispenses with the traditional circumlocutions (“It’s only Zionism I have a problem with, not Jews”). Here is a selection of quotations, taken more or less at random from the Twitter accounts of self-declared Corbyn supporters:
“We’ve had the Holocaust rammed down our throat by Zionists forever ensuring only Jewish suffering counts.”
“Jews and Zionists own the whole world.”
“Zyklon B was used for delousing”.
I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that Jezza himself is anti-Semitic. The self-righteous old boob, who seems to go out of his way to cultivate the appearance of a Reform rabbi, is sincere in his dislike of racism. But the same is plainly not true of some of his most enthusiastic backers.
What is going on? In part, we’re seeing the ugly alliance between Islamist radicals and parts of the fringe Left that Nick Cohen keeps writing about, based on a curious my-enemy’s-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-enemy logic. If your starting point is that the Western powers are responsible for the ills of the world, you can easily find yourself in a mésalliance with movements which, while they might be anti-feminist, anti-gay and anti-secularist, are at least satisfyingly anti-American. The more time you spend with these groups, the more you start sympathising with their world-view. And Jews generally don’t occupy a positive place in the jihadi world-view.
Not that Left-wing anti-Semitism is a new phenomenon. The two Victorian socialists I quoted at the beginning may not have represented the majoritarian strain of the Left in their era; but they were by no means exceptional. Anti-Semitism was bound up with a dislike of capitalism, banks and markets. Jews were portrayed, in much Leftist propaganda, as a living off the honest toil of the workers. “How, as a Socialist, can you not be an anti-Semite?” Hitler asked his party members in 1920.
Listen, to pluck an example more or less at random, to the French socialist (later communist) deputy, Pierre Myrens, in 1911, “The Yid [‘Youtre’] is an Israelite by religion, a Jew by race and, what is more, a capitalist!”
I could fill the rest of this column with similar quotations, but I find them as distasteful as I hope you do.
My purpose is simply to wipe away the self-righteousness, the smugness, that is slathered over large parts of our contemporary Left. Quotations like these have been edited out of our collective memory, because the dominant narrative of our age is that Left-wing means nice and Right-wing means nasty, ergo anti-Semitism must be Right-wing.
Sorry, comrades, but that’s not how it was – or is. Yes, I know that there have been plenty of bigots on the Right, too. I know there have been many principled Jewish socialists. I know that Karl Marx was the grandson of two rabbis. But listen to the way he wrote about Jews:
“The essence of Judaism and the root of the Jewish soul is expediency and self-interest; the God of Israel is Mammon, who expresses himself in the lust for money. Judaism is the embodiment of anti-social attitudes.”
It’s true that the odious cadger disliked all religions, but he never wrote about Christianity that way. Indeed, he could be quite sentimental about it – though he deplored its corruption by “the Jewish spirit”.
Marx’s dislike of Judaism did not remain confined to his turgid books. It found expression in the anti-Semitic campaigns of the Comecon regimes: the purges of Jews by Poland’s Communists; the show trials in Czechoslovakia and Hungary of “Israeli spies”; Stalin’s “Doctors’ Plot”, which accused Jewish physicians of conspiring to assassinate the Communist leadership, and which was intended as a prelude to the mass deportation of Soviet Jews to Siberia (fortunately, the old monster died first, and Khruschev dropped the policy). In all these cases, “Zionist” was used as an unsubtle code-word for “Jew”.
Why do so many people, who think of themselves sincerely as anti-racists and opponents of discrimination have a blind spot when it comes to this one minority group?
Largely, I think, because anti-racists rarely push disinterestedly for equality before the law. Their real motive – and it’s not, in itself, a bad one – is the desire to stick up for the underdog, to help the underprivileged. When it comes to, say, quotas in university admissions, they can be quite enthusiastic about racial discrimination.
Jews haven’t always fitted easily into the role of underdog, especially since the birth of Israel. Indeed, that state exists precisely because its founders had had enough of playing such a part.
Israel’s success against the odds is one of the wonders of the twentieth century. In a region where autocracy is the normal form of political organisation, it has remained a democracy – a gloriously cussed and disputatious democracy. In a strip of land without natural resources, it has created wealth from the greatest resource of all: human ingenuity.
That very success means that, not only the state itself, but some non-Israeli Jews, now forfeit the sympathy of those who insist on seeing the world as a hierarchy of victimhood. It’s regrettable; but, in the circumstances, I’d say it’s a price worth paying.