The left must stand up to anti-Semitism

An academic who specialises in anti-Semitism responds to Frank Furedi’s essay on 21st-century anti-Jewish sentiment.

Philip J Spencer

Topics Politics

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spiked’s extensive analysis of the Western reaction to the war in Gaza has generated much debate. Here, as part of a series of responses to our coverage, Philip J Spencer, who teaches courses on the Holocaust, genocide and human rights at Kingston University in England, responds to Frank Furedi’s essay on 21st-century anti-Semitism.

Frank Furedi’s article is a sobering reflection on the connections between anti-Israeli sentiment and anti-Semitism (see After Gaza: what is behind 21st-century anti-Semitism?). The central issues he raises have to do, firstly, with the role that sections of the left have played in legitimising anti-Semitism and, secondly, with how interpretations of the Holocaust are being distorted and abused. These issues, I would suggest, may be still more closely connected than Furedi suggests.

There are a number of ways in which much of the left now refuses to engage seriously with anti-Semitism but rather helps to legitimate it. The first takes the form of explaining anti-Semitism in a way that effectively justifies it. This occurs when, for example, suicide bombing (that is, the deliberate killing of Jewish civilians) is explained in a pseudo-materialist mode as simply a product of desperation. That many people have found themselves desperate without resorting to such actions and such hatred is ignored, as is the obvious fact that they are planned by people who are certainly anti-Semitic but not by any stretch of the imagination hopeless or without considerable material resources.

The second form is collusion – the effective toleration of anti-Semitic language, chants and slogans on demonstrations against Israel. I say ‘effective’ because this is a repeated and growing phenomenon, known in advance. It does not require an occasional well-meaning reproof but the recognition that joint participation in, and organisation of, such demonstrations provides a forum for anti-Semites to express their hatred of Jews without fear or anxiety. (It is in this respect a direct reversal of the old socialist programme of ‘no platform for fascists’.)

The third way in which the left helps to legitimise anti-Semitism, and this often accompanies the first two, has to do with the downplaying of evidence of anti-Semitism itself: the claim that anti-Semitic incidents are over-reported or misinterpreted and that, in any case, they are far less significant than other forms of hatred.

How new is all this? Perhaps it is not quite as new as we might wish, especially if we think about the left’s response to Nazi anti-Semitism. There is a certain ‘conceit’ on the left (one I confess I shared myself for a long time) that they were the most principled, committed opponents of Nazi anti-Semitism. This is highly arguable. In Germany in the 1930s, many left-wing intellectuals took an entirely reductive view of Nazi anti-Semitism. As late as 1939, for example, Max Horkheimer claimed that what was really going on was that ‘the Jews are being supplanted as agents of circulation, for the modern economic structure eliminates the entire sphere of commerce’.

In 1942 (just as the Final Solution was under way) Franz Neumann published his major study of Nazism in which he argued that they would ‘never allow a complete extermination of the Jews’. What the left did oppose was fascism, for which they had a much more sophisticated explanation, and which was a priority. For on the ground, too, mobilising against anti-Semitism as a central issue was repeatedly rejected – by both social democrats and communists. To raise this issue, leaders of both parties agreed, was pointless and counter-productive. It would not win support but would further isolate their militants. And there was more than a hidden suggestion that the Jews had somehow brought this upon themselves, that they had been too visible, too prominent, or worse.

Ignorant efforts to equate what happened to the Jews during Nazi rule with what Israel is doing to the Palestinians may be thought about, to some extent, against this background of incomprehension and avoidance. It is true that what happened then remains hard to comprehend even today. The idea that the Nazis wanted to kill all Jews everywhere is hard to hold in the mind, as (even more) is the creation of extermination camps; factories designed not to produce goods or commodities but corpses and ashes, factories of death.

But if there is little history of thinking seriously about anti-Semitism and confronting it directly when it was at its most dangerous, it may not be so surprising that there has been such a weak response to the latest outbreak of this mutating virus. It was easier then to turn away, to deny the full import of anti-Semitism in its most radical form; it is easier now not to think about anti-Semitism at all.

Philip J Spencer is associate dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences at Kingston University, where he teaches courses on the Holocaust, the Politics of Mass Murder, and Human Rights. He has also written on Marxism and the Holocaust and is currently working on a study of the left, the Holocaust and subsequent genocides.

Previously on spiked

After the war in Gaza, Frank Furedi explored what’s behind 21st-century anti-Semitism. In response to Furedi, Marc Gardner asserted that yesterday’s anti-Zionism is today’s anti-Semitism. Philip Cunliffe identified the rise of ‘humanitarian’ anti-Semitism. Or read more at spiked issue War in Gaza.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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