“The Jews are rallying!” wrote Naz Shah in an infamous Facebook post just months before she was elected Labour MP for Bradford West. “Your school education system only tells you about Anne Frank and the six million Zionists [my emphasis] that were killed by Hitler”, declared a Facebook post shared by Khadim Hussain, then a Labour Party councillor and formerly Lord Mayor of Bradford. “Many people know about who was behind 9/11 and also who is behind Isis. I’ve nothing against Jews … just sharing it!” declared Beinazir Lasharie, a Labour councillor in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Most notoriously, Ken Livingstone, then a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee and a former Labour Mayor of London, claimed in a radio interview in April this year that Hitler had been a supporter of Zionism before he “went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. Livingstone’s bizarre and mischievous allegations have been refuted by a raft of eminent historians including Rainer Schulze, Professor of Modern European History at Essex University. Schulze unequivocally dismissed Livingstone’s arguments, emphasising that: “[a]ny claim that Nazis and Zionists ever shared a common goal is not only cynical and disingenuous, but a distortion of clearly established historical fact.”
The statements by Shah, Hussain, Lasharie and Livingstone – along with numerous other allegedly racist, anti-Semitic or inflammatory comments by individuals associated with Labour – have led to fifty suspensions from the Party. They also prompted Labour’s Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to convene an Inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism within the Party.
While the Inquiry, headed by human rights lawyer Shami Chakrabarti, found that, “[t]he Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism”, it acknowledged that there was, “too much clear evidence…of minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours” and of an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. Tellingly, Chakrabarti found it necessary to remind Labour Party members that they should be wary of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes: “[t]o suggest, for example, that all or most Jewish people are wealthy or interested in wealth or finance or political or media influence…is a classic stereotype”.
Care should be taken in distinguishing statements that relate specifically to Jews as a group and which attribute collective attitudes, propensities or physical characteristics to the group in question or which assert – in the complete absence of evidence – that the group is collectively implicated in such acts as the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, in September 2001, or the formation of terror groups such as ISIS. The comments by Naz Shah, Khadim Hussain and Beinazir Lasharie, cited above, would appear to fall into this category. On the other hand, even highly critical statements about Israel or Zionism, however provocative or historically ill-informed, are not anti-Semitic per se. Nevertheless, Livingstone’s comments, casually linking Zionism with Nazism, are all too likely to incite hostility towards Jews, especially Jews who do not openly and unequivocally condemn Israel.
As several commentators have pointed out, there is a growing tendency on the Left to disregard basic and important distinctions between such categories as Jews, “Zionists” and citizens of the state of Israel. Instead, Jews are frequently viewed by those on the Left as collectively responsible for the actions of Israel. As the Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, has observed, the term “Zionism” has become “a codeword” in the rhetoric of the Left “that bridges from Israel to the wider Jewish world, hinting at the age-old, anti-semitic notion of a shadowy, global power, operating behind the scenes”.
The historian Simon Schama has portrayed the rise of left-wing anti-Semitism, fuelled by militant anti-Zionism, as a reaction, at least in part, to “the collapse of the Soviet Union and the retreat of Marxist socialism around the world”. As Schama puts it, “militant energies have needed somewhere to go”.
Writing in The New York Times, Kenan Malik has attributed the increase in left-wing anti-Semitism to a fundamental shift in Left thinking. Malik, who has published extensively on subjects including multiculturalism and race, contends that many on the Left now reject universalist human rights ideology in favour of multiculturalism and identity politics, “celebrating a world divided into distinct cultures, each with its own ideas, beliefs and values”. As Malik points out:
Identity politics has made it easier to hold all Jews responsible for the actions of the State of Israel and to go after Jews simply for being Jews. As the distinction between criticizing ideas and fingering a group has eroded, there has been a slippage from anti-Zionist activism into outright anti-Semitism. Many who support the Palestinians now seem genuinely unable to distinguish between criticizing the policies of the Israeli government and sowing hatred against a people.
Although the comments of Naz Shah, Khadim Hussain and Beinazir Lasharie, quoted above, have been widely portrayed as examples of left-wing anti-Semitism, no doubt because of the politicians’ association with the Labour Party, it is at least equally plausible to see their comments as a reflection of strong religio-cultural attitudes within Muslim communities in the UK and abroad. As the journalist, Mehdi Hasan, acknowledged in the New Statesman in March 2013:
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It pains me to have to admit this but anti-Semitism isn’t just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; it’s routine and commonplace. Any Muslims reading this article – if they are honest with themselves – will know instantly what I am referring to. It’s our dirty little secret. You could call it the banality of Muslim anti-Semitism.
The strength of anti-Semitic sentiment in diasporic Muslim communities – in part a reaction to the plight (both real and perceived) of the Palestinians – is clearly indicated by recent polls. As noted by the historian, Robert Wistrich, Muslim anti-Semitism draws on age-old European and Christian anti-Semitic myths and stereotypes and is frequently driven by “an irrational belief that history itself is determined by the evil machinations of the Jewish people”.
Since the beginning of the 21st Century there has been a dramatic escalation of violent and sometimes lethal assaults on Jews and destruction of Jewish property in France as well as in a number of other West European states. Overwhelmingly, the perpetrators have been young Muslim males, many of whom were born in Europe. According to a report compiled by the Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive, Jews represent less than one per cent of the French population. However, they have been “the target of 40 per cent of all racist crimes” committed in the country during 2015 and of “49 per cent of racist violent acts committed against people” during the same period.
Neither left-wing anti-Semitism nor Islamist anti-Semitism pose a serious threat to Jews in East Central Europe (ECE). In part, this is because of the marginalisation of left-wing political parties and of left-wing ideas in countries such as Poland and Hungary. It is also attributable to the absence of sizeable Muslim communities in the ECE area. However, as compared with Western Europe, anti-Semitism is much stronger in the ECE region and has actually increased in Hungary in recent years.
Paradoxically, communist administrations, which denied most civil and political rights to their citizens, also deprived them of the ‘freedom’ to engage in openly racist public discourse. Jews and Roma, so often the victims of hate-filled invective in the region before 1945 – as well as after the ‘restoration’ of democracy in 1990 – enjoyed varying degrees of immunity from overt racism throughout most of the communist era. The “anti-Zionist campaign” in Poland in 1968, in which thousands of Poland’s remaining Jews were forced out of their jobs and left with no alternative but to emigrate was notorious, in part, because it was exceptional.
The ‘return’ of multi-party democracy to Eastern Europe, since 1989, has created a sort of political and ideological bazaar, in which racist, revisionist, fascist and anti-Semitic ideologies have an opportunity to compete for public space and attention alongside liberalism, multiculturalism and moderate variants of conservatism and Christian Democracy. Anti-Semitism as well as other long-standing national, ethnic or religious resentments – that were largely suppressed but by no means extinguished under communism – have resurfaced.
The continuing popular appeal of anti-Semitic tropes in countries such as Hungary helps to explain the patently ludicrous allegations by Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s populist Prime Minister, concerning the Hungarian-born financier, George Soros. Beginning in October 2015, Orbán has accused Soros, widely known to be of Jewish extraction, of encouraging the influx of millions of Muslim asylum seekers to Europe in a malicious bid to undermine and “weaken nation states” and to change the “established European way of life”.
In May this year, Hungary’s Prime Minister repeated some of these absurd but nevertheless dangerous allegations. Interviewed on Kossuth Radio, Orbán labelled Soros a “background power”: a notion that – as he must have realised – inescapably evokes the anti-Semitic slanders contained in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published at the beginning of the 20th century in Tsarist Russia. Widely thought to have been fabricated by Russian security agents, The Protocols, which purport to be a secret document approved by a shadowy cabal of the world’s Jewish leaders, sets out a blueprint for achieving global domination.
In reviewing recent developments, whether in the UK, Western or East Central Europe, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that anti-Semitism, which appeared to be on the wane in Europe after World War Two – particularly as revelations about the Holocaust reached a growing audience – is attracting eager new adherents from the Left, from diasporic Muslim communities and also from the Right. Mounting international concern at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians allied to an inability or unwillingness to properly distinguish between “Zionists” and Jews, Holocaust fatigue, the re-emergence and renewed respectability of traditional anti-Semitic discourse in many of the ex-communist states, as well as the apparently timeless appeal of conspiracy theories in which ‘Zionists’, i.e. Jews, are held responsible for the plight of oppressed peoples around the world, for terrorist outrages and for the misery that neoliberal economic policies have inflicted on populations in Europe and the Americas, may go some way towards explaining this phenomenon.