Jewish Behaviour Seen as Responsible for Anti-Semitism

There is another relationship between the ideologies of anti-semitism and assimilationism. Assimilationism itself has various facets: it can refer to the categorisation of Jewish culture as inferior and even doomed; it can refer to condemnation of Jewish self-organisation. These attitudes are obviously also directed at other minority groups. However, Lenin has a particular argument that seems almost uniquely directed towards Jews—namely that we should assimilate as a political gesture in order to avoid persecution.

Lenin may have been sincere in his opposition to Jewish oppression, nonetheless his argument is, paradoxically, based on assumptions that are found in anti-semitism. If not anti-semitic itself it is still a capitulation to anti-semitism, as it locates the source of Jewish persecution not in the persecutor but within some perceived behaviour by Jewry—which Lenin himself described as "non-native" and "alien". Such a description reads in terms very similar to those of the anti-semite Arnold White who attacked Jews for "clinging to a community that prefers to remain aloof from the mainstream of modern life" (The Modern Jew). Of course it is central to the conspiracy theory that it is a response to some 'real' Jewish behaviour. The analogy with sexism is powerful. How would a 'socialist' analysis be received if it argued that to understand sexism it is necessary to examine, not the attitudes of men, but the behaviour of women? According to Lenin, Jewry must literally obliterate its identity not to be oppressed. In fact this sort of logic would have to tell women that the only way of dealing with sexism is to become men.

Unfortunately, a similar concession to the enemy occurs in the writings of Abram Leon. He treats anti-semitism as being a reaction to what he perceives as the Jewish historical role—namely trade and usury. Moreover, he views this as persisting even though Jews no longer perform such functions. In any event, he still locates the source of anti-semitism as being in some way linked to actual Jewish behaviour. Again, it is as though sexism were analysed as a reaction against the supposed behaviour of all women, or of some witches several centuries ago. Quite clearly, Leon's own personal and political practice—his revolutionary struggle to death against fascism and anti-semitism—was inevitably at odds with his theoretical model.

However, the crudity of such a model can be found in the statement made by Tony Greenstein, writing as chairperson of the Labour Committee on Palestine, that Nazism was built on "the memory of the peasants regarding their relations with Jewish money lenders/tax collectors in feudal times" (Letters Page Big Flame December 1982). This attributes an extraordinary memory to the German peasantry—it is as though there were no intervening anti-semitic ideology. It fails also to ask why the activities of Christian money lenders did not lead to the annihilation of most of Christendom several centuries later.

In fact, there has arisen a whole school of liberal historiography which acts as an apologia for anti-semitism precisely by arguing that it is somehow a reaction against real Jewish behaviour. A recent example is the book Anti-Semitism in British Society by Colin Holmes. Holmes explicitly acknowledges that he is engaged in an "interactionist approach" by which he means that "in order to understand anti-semitic hostility we need to recognise the characteristics of the Jewish minority". In other words Holmes is saying that to understand anti-semitism we have to look at behaviour within Jewry.

The fundamental error of both revolutionaries such as Lenin, and liberals such as Holmes, is the belief that it is possible to discover a 'rational' source for anti-semitism. All such beliefs are premised on the assumption that there is some material conduct by Jews to which anti-semitism is a form of reaction, however perverse. Any genuine socialist understanding of anti-semitism requires not an examination of Jewish behaviour, but of the material behaviour of the anti-semite and of false consciousness. This is because, in spite of all its claims to the contrary, anti-semitism as an ideology has nothing to do with the behaviour of even one single Jew, let alone of all Jews. It is a view of the world based on myths and fantasies. To attempt to locate the source of such myths in Jewish life is ultimately a major concession to that ideology.

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