Denying The Significance Of The Material Consequences Of Anti-Semitism

Anti-semitism is essentially a view of the world, an ideology, yet of course it does have material and atrocious consequences for Jews—witness the 'final solution'. However the Left has systematically under-estimated these material consequences as can be seen in the following examples.

The holocaust is seen as unique and without any historical precedent. Thus Nigel Ward has stated that anti-semitism did not exist in Eastern Europe until the penetration of capital in the last century (Socialist Challenge 2.10.82). He ignores centuries of pogroms, often sanctioned by the Orthodox churches, not the least of which were the atrocities perpetrated by Chmielnicki in 1648, when an estimated one million Jews were killed—only those accepting baptism being spared. Chmielnicki is still regarded in the Ukraine as a national hero. Similarly, Ward claims that the economic position of Jews in Western Europe was "threatened by the development of early capitalism" after the eleventh century. Quite apart from the historical error of an assumed Jewish economic position—the word 'threatened' suggests some minor material decline. The reality was the constant attacks on Jewish communities throughout the Crusades. These in fact were repeated shortly afterwards, during the period of the Black Death (1348-9) when Jews were blamed in popular mythology for the plague. In Germany alone, over 200 communities were exterminated whilst attacks took place on a smaller scale in Poland, Catalonia and in the north of Italy.

The other side to the perverse view that the holocaust was without precedent, is the equally perverse notion that anti-semitism disappeared with the holocaust. Big Flame criticised those whom it claims "hark back constantly to the history of anti-semitism" (October 1982). In other words anti-semitism exists only in 'history'—though Big Flame does have the grace to admit that the 'tiniest elements' might still be around today. This is not simply reactionary. It is ahistorical and seems to be based on the liberal and social democratic myth that anti-semitism was defeated by the bourgeoisie in World War Two ... as though this were somehow seen by the Allies as a war against anti-semitism. The same politics occurred in the propaganda slogan of the Anti-Nazi League in the middle of the 1970s—"Yesterday it was the Jews, today it is the blacks", This imagined that somehow anti-black racism didn't exist at the time of pre-war fascism and that anti-semitism disappeared after, and as a result of, imperialist war.

There is another particularly insidious aspect to this constant under-estimation of anti-semitism. This is the appalling attitude by the Left that Jews will have to have one foot in the grave before it will respond. By this time, of course, it will be too late anyway. Thus Uri Davies (Peace News 26.1.79) was anxious to stress that

"Given the current social and political circumstances prevalent in Britain, anti-semitism does not feature as a prominent element in British racism ... Jews in Britain are not the first nor the worst victims of racism. There is no denial that in future, given certain social and political developments, racism directed against Jews could figure more prominently in British society. But this is a contingent possibility and not a present development nor a likely development in the near future".

It is not claimed that Jews are either the 'first' or the 'worst' victims of racism—and such was certainly not claimed in the article to which this was a reply. However, it is remarkable that any attempt to draw attention to the existence of anti-semitism can result in such slanderous assertions. The message appears to be that there is a queue or hierarchy of victims, and Jews will have to wait till they get to the front before anyone will take any serious political notice. Uri Davies seems to have a touching faith in the present social order. He should remember the misassessment of August Bebel who, in spite of his active opposition to anti-semitism, said in 1906 that "It is comforting that in Germany it will never have a chance to assert a decisive influence on the life of state or society" (quoted by Silberner in an article on German Social Democracy, Historia Judaica 1953).

Paradoxically, although the reality of Jewish oppression is often denied, the Left still persists in defining the Jew as a victim, but in a purely abstract way. However, this status is a surrogate one to play us off against different groups. A coarse example was the statement by Ken Livingstone, the Labour leader of the Greater London Council, that the suffering of the Irish at the hands of the English was worse that the Nazi holocaust of European Jewry. Who are statements like this supposed to help? Certainly not the Irish, who have an autonomous existence, and don't require their oppression to be validated by a league table with other groups. Neither do they help the Jewish people who are in any event being constantly told that their oppression is near the bottom of any league table.

Even when certain socialists claim that the Left has constantly fought anti-semitism, they have a totally restricted meaning of what anti-semitism is. They ignore and leave unopposed the anti-semitism of daily life on which fascism is ultimately built. For the Left, anti-semitism only seems to exist, if at all, when matters get to the stage of organised violence on a mass scale. There is absolutely no recognition of the profoundly anti-semitic culture which underlies these physical manifestations. It is as though major physical violence against Jews is an aberration which springs out of nowhere. There is a reverse side to all this. This is that anti-semitism without physical violence is deemed simply not to exist. Cultural imperialism is just ignored. As has been emphasised, the Left actively advocates assimilationism.

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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