How the Left Became Anti-Semitic

Robert Wistrich’s latest work, From Ambivalence to Betrayal, defines Zionism as a national liberation movement. Marx pre-dated Zionism but the analytical tools he bequeathed to his ideological successors predisposed them to sneer at the concept of Jewish national self-determination as a petty-bourgeois folly. Consequently, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky all derided Zionism, and yet Wistrich accuses none of these icons of the Old Left of being overtly anti-Semitic: catastrophically wrongheaded, yes; but anti-Semitic, no. Wistrich has far less sympathy for the anti-Zionist Left of today. Its impenitent pro-Palestinian and pro-terrorist stance marks yet another chapter in the longest hatred of all: anti-Semitism.    

Given that Karl Marx accepted in principle the right of Jews in a bourgeois society to demand civil liberties, he was not, in this sense at least, anti-Semitic. Still, these so-called bourgeois privileges were of minor consequence in the greater scheme of things. In a post-capitalist world, Judaism—an antiquated religion of the ego, according to Marx—would become redundant: “Under socialism or communism, there was no need for Jews as Jews to maintain their existence.” Marx’s class-based analysis, insists Wistrich, was a key reason for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and later the Russian Social Democratic Party (RSDP), to spurn Zionism.

Because Zionism emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century, the SPD had to make sense of a Jewish national movement without Marx, who had died in 1883. It was Karl Kautsky (1854–1934), the so-called Pope of Marxism, who “came closest to applying the Marxist method of historical materialism in a coherent fashion” to the Zionism project. Kautsky concluded that the Jews were “not a race, a nation, or even a people, but a ‘caste’ with certain quasi-national attributes” that would disappear with the arrival of socialism. This expectation that Jews would lose their “illusionary national characteristics” with the fall of capitalism was disproved by the Soviet Union. Even so, says Wistrich, the line taken by Kautsky runs all the way through to present-day neo-Trotskyist and New Left critiques of Zionism.

There were, to be fair, other trends of thought in German Social Democracy. Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932), the well-known proponent of evolutionary socialism, considered Zionism consistent with the progressive aspect of national self-determination. He also lived long enough to witness the shadow of anti-Semitism growing longer over the Weimar Republic, and understood this was “compelling Jews to rally around the idea of a national homeland”. Joseph Bloch (1871–1936), even more than Bernstein, articulated a progressive or liberal case for the Zionist project: “Zionism for Bloch was the perfect synthesis between European humanist universalism and the national ideals implicit in biblical Judaism.”

The more celebrated Marxist icons of the twentieth century were of a different mind. Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919) could well have been Marx’s most authentic pupil, not that this did her—or Germany, Poland, and the Jews of Europe—much good. Luxemburg was not anti-Semitic; she just had no time for the sort of person who studied the Torah. Like Marx she came from a long line of rabbinical scholars, and like him she rejected virtually everything about her Jewish heritage. Luxemburg believed Judaism had no place in Europe’s communist future: “the proletarian revolution would erase all national boundaries, class divisions, and obscurantist religious or ethnic prejudices”. That, at any rate, was the theory.

On the subject of revolution she was not only a firebrand but also a purist, scornful of any kind of political manoeuvring compromised by the aspirations of real people. The Jewish Bund was loathsome, the Zionist movement more so. She was similarly contemptuous of Josef Pilsudski, leader of the Polish pro-independence movement (PPS), with his intolerably small-minded ambition to liberate Poland from the yoke of Tsarism. What did patriotism have to do with the brotherhood of man and an international proletarian revolution? Had not the Communist Manifesto already established that “the workers have no fatherland”? Well, no, as it turned out. All the twentieth-century revolutions that brought communists to power, notes Wistrich, from Russia to China, Vietnam to Cuba, “could not have happened without harnessing nationalism to the proletarian cause”. The founding of Israel in 1948 represented “another nail in the coffin of the Luxemburgist negation of the right to national self-determination”.  

Although she had, at eleven, experienced a pogrom in Warsaw, Rosa Luxemburg often failed to address the reality of anti-Semitism in imperial Germany and the Russian empire. Mercilessly caricatured as a foreigner and a Jew by her political foes, “Red Rosa” expressed little sympathy in her writings for the victims of European pogroms and even less for the cause of Jewish nationalism. Her Marxist faith, argues Wistrich, left her blindsided: anti-Semitism, as a function of reactionary politics, could be no more than an unfortunate but transitory state of affairs, “a passing scourge on the road to socialism”.

Robert Wistrich perfectly captures the ill-omened aspects of Luxemburg’s execution by Freikorps officers in January 1919. These thugs, the kind of violent characters who would soon be enlisting in Hitler’s SA, were originally planning to slay Luxemburg in a pogrom-style murder. Anti-Semitism, in other words, was not a passing scourge but Germany’s future. The imprudent communist-led Spartacist Uprising in which she (perhaps reluctantly) participated proved “a disaster and a major turning-point for what was to come in the freshly-minted and ill-fated Weimar Republic”, not least because it irrevocably soured the relationship between the Communists (KPD) and the Social Democrats (SPD), helping to pave the way for the eventual ascendancy of the Nazis. The defiant Marxist millennialism of Luxemburg’s last article in Red Fahne (January 1919) illustrates not only the futility of her political life but also how she got the “Jewish Question” entirely wrong. The Zionists, despite their lack of revolutionary élan, were indisputably prescient.

Renowned historians, including Jacob Katz, Walter Laqueur, Michael Marrus and Yehuda Bauer, have stressed the impossibility of anyone predicting the Holocaust, and yet Leon Trotsky is on record as forecasting the “physical extermination of the Jews” as early as December 1938. Trotsky never freed himself from the Marxist dogma that defined Nazi anti-Semitism as a symptom of putrefying capitalism. He understood that “Nazi Jew-hatred was a culminating point of contemporary barbarism with genocidal consequences for the Jewish people.” As Wistrich contends, the anti-Semitism of the Nazis existed independent of class or economic interests, and could not be explained away as “a petty-bourgeois backlash against modernity”. This, however, was exactly what Trotsky continued to say in public.

Trotsky addressed the savage effects of anti-Semitism throughout the Russian empire but asserted, like Luxemburg, that the international socialist revolution would consign the “Jewish Question” to history. On the other hand, a 1937 pamphlet, Thermidor and Anti-Semitism, made it abundantly clear that he believed Stalin, the Great-Russian Bolshevik nationalist (of Georgian background), had promoted anti-Semitism in order to destroy his Jewish opponents, which included Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky himself. The bitter paradox—“a Bolshevik tragedy”, Wistrich calls it—is that Lev Davidovich Bronstein shed every aspect of his provincial Jewish heritage on the way to becoming Leon Trotsky, hero of the October Revolution and the Civil War, and yet his reward was to be denounced as Judas, condemned to spend the last decade of his life as the proverbial Wandering Jew: “He would become the arch-heretic of the Stalinist theocratic universe institutionalized by the Comintern—the scapegoat for all its reversals, failures, and defeats.” 

Wistrich cites an account of the 1937 conversation between Trotsky and the Russian-born Zionist socialist Bela Idelson as evidence that, at least in private, the Disarmed Prophet became curious about Jewish life in Mandatory Palestine, particularly the aspect of collective settlements. At the conclusion of their tête-à-tête, Trotsky insisted that his interest in the Zionist project remain a secret: “The world will not understand. People will seek in this, too, grounds for accusing me of harbouring alien views, and perhaps even sympathy for Zionism.” Departing from a standard Marxist formula proved impossible for the Old Man. 

While Marx, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky dismissed Jewish particularism—that is to say, Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, Yiddish, and so on—as a remnant of the Middle Ages, they tended to regard Zionism as irksome more than sinister, peripheral rather than important. The Holocaust (1941–45) and Israel’s War of Independence (1947–49) changed that. Most communists or socialists in the West at the time were enraged at the violation of the 1947 UN partition plan by the various attacking Arab armies, all of which were associated with “utterly reactionary” regimes. Wistrich quotes from a 1948 article in the British communist Daily Worker deploring the “reactionary war conducted by the chieftains of the Arab League under British control”. While the Americans were not actively involved in the attempt to throttle the Jewish state at birth, “official American support for Israel was comparatively lukewarm”. Israel’s creation, therefore, was not “a Western-imperialist conspiracy” as contemporary left-wing polemicists argue. On the contrary, the only foreign assistance Ben-Gurion received in the first instance consisted of arms from socialist Czechoslovakia and political support from the Soviet Union.

The paradox, of course, is that Stalin—unlike Lenin and Trotsky—really was an anti-Semite. He backed the Zionists to win the War of Independence because he rated them as the only anti-colonial (or anti-British) movement in the Middle East at the time; he was also smarting from the Arab world’s tacit (and not so tacit) overtures to Hitlerism during the Second World War. The official Soviet attitude to Zionism within the Socialist Motherland was another issue altogether. Ben-Gurion and his cohort might have had a “right to political independence in Palestine”, but Soviet Jews during the time of Zhdanovschina (1946–53) were suspected of being “rootless cosmopolitans”. The 1952–53 Doctors’ Plot, explains Wistrich, fused Zionist conspiracy theory with Israel and Western imperialism, allowing Stalin to link anti-Zionism with “visceral anti-Semitism”. Here we observe the dawn of an unholy trinity: anti-Israel, anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism. A state-sponsored pogrom was avoided only because Stalin unexpectedly died on March 5, 1953. Relations between Israel and the USSR had been relatively normal between 1948 and 1952, but this could be only temporary since Israel was a liberal-democratic entity and Ben-Gurion turned out to be unapologetically pro-West in the Cold War.

The continuing regression to unreconstructed anti-Semitism under Khrushchev and then Brezhnev still casts a dark shadow over Late Communism. Khrushchev, the purported reformer, remained conspicuously silent about the “liquidation of the cream of the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia between 1948 and 1952”. Things did not improve. From the time of the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference, the Soviet Union had geopolitical reasons to reverse its position on which countries in the Middle East were reactionary, and which countries were not. The Realpolitik of the Cold War determined that repressive and anti-communist Arab regimes, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser’s, were progressive. Egypt invested heavily in Soviet armoury and so its utter defeat at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces in 1956, 1967 and again in 1973 only added to the enmity of the Soviet Union towards Israel. 

After the defeat of the Arab armies (and Soviet equipment) in the 1967 Six-Day War, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism took on “a truly systematic and organized character” in the Soviet Union. Leonid Brezhnev, whose greatest military victory came a year later when the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact captured Prague, decided that World Zionism was “a racialist, criminal conspiracy” and that Israelis wanted “to copy the crimes of the Hitler invaders”:

The tone had been set for what would become a veritable tsunami of articles, lectures, broadcasts, and films vilifying Judaism, Zionism, and Israel in the Soviet mass media … In place of the relentless Nazi myth about “Jewish Bolshevism”, the Soviet Communists began to fabricate the equally mendacious thesis of “Jewish Nazism”.

The bitter irony of Late Communism is that Soviet leaders adopted an even more virulent form of anti-Semitic hate propaganda than the Tsarist regime had devised to prop up their corrupt and crumbling despotism at the turn of the century. The Kremlin’s Anti-Zionist Committee, which began to promote “the Zionist-Nazi equation” in the early 1980s, lost its influence during Mikhail Gorbachev’s last years, and the failure of the anti-perestroika coup in 1991 prevented the return of state-sponsored Judeophobia. Boris Yeltsin, for all his faults, abhorred anti-Semitism. Even Putin, admittedly for reasons of geopolitical advantage, has been “resetting” Russia’s relations with Israel. All the same, much of the wickedness that transpired throughout the Soviet era might well prove ineffaceable.

The New Left, which emerged in the West during the 1960s, always claimed that its self-styled libertarian socialist politics owed nothing to Soviet Realpolitik. The evidence suggests otherwise, including the alacrity with which the New Left bought the Soviet Union’s narrative on Yasser Arafat, an old fedayeen hand from way back. In 1955 Nasser enunciated the purpose of the fedayeen as well as well as anyone: “There will be no peace on Israel’s border because we demand vengeance, and vengeance is Israel’s death.” The Palestine Liberation Organisation, its 1964 charter drafted in Moscow, was an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. No longer did Arafat speak (in English) of eradicating all the Jews of Israel, but of “liberating the Palestinian people”—a brand new designation for the Arab inhabitants of what had until 1918 been the hinterland of an Ottoman province ruled from Damascus. Eradicating all the Jews of Israel, nevertheless, remained Yasser Arafat’s true ambition.

When today’s anti-Zionist Left, from the doyen of the genre Noam Chomsky to Australia’s own Antony Loewenstein, promote the notion of a bi-national Palestinian state they do not mean the kind of two-state solution Arafat was offered—and rejected—in 2000. They mean a one-state solution, a no-Israel solution. They are, in effect, echoing the long-term goal of Yasser Arafat: the abolition of the State of Israel. Self-respecting progressives disdain anti-Semitism, distancing themselves from the explicitly annihilationist anti-Semitism of (say) Hamas or Hezbollah, although this never stops them expressing solidarity with the political objectives of Hamas and Hezbollah. Asked recently how many Jewish lives he would be prepared to see forfeited for the achievement of his bi-national solution, Loewenstein responded: “Six million. That’s my answer. Write that down.”

The anti-Zionist Left, except in France, disavows conventional Holocaust Denial. The chapter in From Ambivalence to Betrayal titled “The Holocaust Inversion of the Left” outlines with luminous clarity a different reconfiguring of the Holocaust horror. Because the Zionist-Nazi myth was for fifteen years “a Soviet exclusive preserve”, Wistrich has every right to classify the origins of Holocaust Inversion as a totalitarian fabrication. There was a time when only the Soviet media—along with its Arab counterpart—“compulsively blended the Star of David and the Swastika”, but those days are long gone. In Zionism in the Age of Dictators (1983), the neo-Trotskyist Lenni Brenner characterised the German Zionists of the 1930s as Nazi collaborators. Though a child could poke holes in Brenner’s thesis, the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya, with a circulation of 8 million plus, commended the author for his academic rigour. Brenner, in turn, admired Perdition (1987), a play written by a fellow neo-Trotskyist, Jim Allen, and performed in London’s Royal Court Theatre. Noam Chomsky—not a neo-Trotskyist, please, but a libertarian socialist—also approved of Perdition’s message: the commonality of the aims of Nazism and Zionism.

For Inverters, everything Israel does or has ever done automatically adds to the Zionist-Nazi equation, whether it is the War of Independence or the Six-Day War or the Second Intifada. The Israelis (although that might exclude Israeli Arabs with full citizenship) are the Nazis, while the Arabs are the Third Reich’s Jews (but maybe not the Zionist ones). For Inverters, the erection of the West Bank barrier, for instance, was not to protect Israeli civilians from terrorist attacks; it had more to do with imprisoning West Bank Arabs à la the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. The fits-all-sizes nature of the Zionist-Nazi allegory turns any evaluation of what is a complicated scenario into a relatively simple task. Conversely, it means that Inverters such as Noam Chomsky have about as much scholarly integrity as Deniers.

Holocaust Deniers tend not to deny their anti-Semitism, but Inverters, cognisant of the political incorrectness of racism, are prickly on the subject. Most insist their anti-Zionism provides them with immunity from the accusation of anti-Semitism, as if this were not a fallacy of the Philosophy 101 variety. The real bigots, or so their argument goes, are the apologists for Israel who silence the critics of the Jewish State with their use of the anti-Semitic card. Robert Wistrich, however, is a painstakingly methodical scholar and the case he builds in the chapter “Anti-Zionist Myths on the Contemporary Left” is truly devastating. For many in the contemporary Left, the fight for socialism—abandoned with the collapse of the Soviet Union—has been replaced by a “boutique movement” whose objective is the demonisation of Israel:

The methodology—defamation, double standards, and relentless boycott resolutions—recalls the more noxious and time-honoured techniques of classic anti-Semitism … In such cases the desire is not merely to wound with words but to negate, to efface and to symbolically wipe out the adversary—a necessary prelude to his future physical annihilation.

Wistrich rightly adjudges this latter-day witch hunt, with all its parallels to 1930s Germany, as one of “the more abject spectacles of our time”.

In Notes on a Century (2012), Bernard Lewis recounts the time when hostility against Jews was theologically defined. The Jew who decided his inheritance was too dangerous could, by the simple act of conversion, “escape persecution and even, if he wished, join the persecutors”. Anti-Semitism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries took on a racially defined quality, and so the option to evade maltreatment by essentially joining the tormentor came to a halt. The events in the Middle East, which now provide “a new rationale for Jew-baiting”, have restored “for Jews who want it, the lost option of changing sides”. In this context the feverish and ceaseless propaganda of Jewish anti-Zionists makes psychological sense.

The most important and perhaps the most disturbing chapter in From Ambivalence to Betrayal comes right at the end. It is titled “The Marxist-Islamist Alliance”. The cause of anti-global-capitalism, maintains Wistrich, was dealt a near mortal blow in 1989 with the collapse of Soviet communism. Filling the vacuum in the anti-America movement is “a bizarre mixture of fragments from Marx, Castro, Jesus, and Muhammad”. Islamists and the New Left do not agree about “feminism, homosexuality, religion, secularism, and the aims of socialism”, and yet they “clearly share a common anti-Western, anti-globalist and anti-Zionist agenda”. Hugo Chávez, enthusiastically invited to Australia in 2007 by an assortment of our left-wing celebrities, from Labor Senator Gavin Marshall to broadcaster Phillip Adams, is but one illustration of the phenomenon. Anti-Americanism, the suppression of free speech, radical populism, anti-Jewish demonstrations in Caracas, and a close military relationship with Islamist Iran, coalesce into a “toxic synthesis”.

The word venomous hardly does justice to the Islamist version of annihilationist anti-Semitism, spiked as it is with traditional European Judeophobia (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), the Nazis’ Final Solution, Holocaust Denial, Soviet-initiated Holocaust Inversion, the War of Independence, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Israel is a cancer that must be removed. At the same time, Western leftists who embrace a radical form of multiculturalism and “anti-racism” (that is, identity politics) as a substitute for class struggle have developed a propensity to “despise Israel as a dangerous anachronism and an obstacle to their utopian vision of universal brotherhood”. The Jewish state, in other words, is now an impediment to the realisation of a global people’s community: intrinsically alien and intolerable, it has no place in the Volksgemeinschaft.   

Robert Wistrich, born in 1942, began his adult life, like so many of us, as a man of the Left. This, Wistrich reflects, was supposed to be the side of politics that spoke the language of human liberation—liberty, equality and fraternity—and yet where is the fairness in equating Jewish national self-determination with Nazi racialism? Even Ho Chi Minh, no stranger to national liber­­ation movements, had a positive opinion of David Ben-Gurion. Patriotism, after all, does not equate to fascism. From Ambivalence to Betrayal, then, is an opportunity for those who are of a left-wing persuasion to reconsider the ideological underpinnings of the Old Left’s ambivalence about Zionism. More urgently, though, it is a plea for today’s Left to awaken from their “self-induced stupor” and understand that the global jihad, of which the Islamist war against Israel is but one part, threatens “not only the existence of Israel but of civilization itself”.

Daryl McCann wrote on Bernard Lewis’s Notes on a Century in the October issue. He has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au

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