The Left’s Anti-Semitism Problem: A History

The more naïve supporters of tomorrow’s Women’s March on Washington were apparently surprised by the anti-Semitism of its main organizers. They shouldn’t have been; this has been a story for nearly the entire existence of the movement that was born during Donald Trump’s inauguration. Tamika Mallory, a fan of Fidel Castro, has been “thank[ing] God” for hardcore anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan for a while now. Leah McSweeney and Jacob Siegel of Tabletmag reported last month that, according to several people present at an organizational meeting with Mallory and co-organizer Carmen Perez, the two expressed the view “that Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people” and “claimed that Jews were proven to have been leaders of the American slave trade.” The Palestinian American activist (and co-chair of the original march) Linda Sarsour is famous for her 2012 tweet that “nothing is creepier than Zionism.”

Certainly the more woke among Jews of the political Left—the National Council of Jewish Women, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, If Not Now, and other groups—knew this perfectly well. Continuing to staunchly support the Women’s March, they have joined the Jewish Voice for Peace in condemning the uproar against the march as an “opportunistic attempt to break up a strong and growing cross-movement coalition by rehashing a painful conversation that has been happening in progressive spaces since Farrakhan first assumed leadership of Nation of Islam.” Farrakhan, yes; “right-wing Zionists” like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, no. Simple.

This would come as no surprise to the premier scholar of anti-Semitism, Robert S. Wistrich, whose last book before his untimely death in 2015, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel (2012), represents “the closing of a circle after four decades of reflection about the complex interaction between Socialism and the Jews, the Jewish involvement in radical movements, and the phenomenon of antisemitism as well as anti-Zionism on the left.”

Copiously researched (his sources span 12 languages), From Ambivalence to Betrayal is a kind of compendium of all of the scholar’s previous work. It is also deeply personal. Wistrich, who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University College London, dedicated his life to documenting the wrong turn taken by his own idealistic co-religionists. He was born in 1945 in Soviet Kazakhstan, where his father, a former “fellow-traveler” of the Polish Communist Party, had been exiled along with his wife, a socialist sympathizer. He experienced Soviet communism and, later, Western socialism, after the family moved to France and then England. After a stint as a college radical, he ended up writing a doctoral thesis at the University of London in the mid-1970s focusing on Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky. A series of superb studies of the Left followed, crowned by A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism—From Antiquity to the Global Jihad (2010), which secured Wistrich’s preeminence in this field.

The Supposed “Cult of Money”

Going back in history, the European Left, especially in France and Germany, was profoundly anti-Semitic to begin with, “as part of its atheistic critique of religion and its populist anti-capitalism,” Wistrich says. But beyond that, he demonstrates with scrupulous intellectual honesty how much modern socialism owed “to militant Jews who were among its initial creators, leading practitioners, and most fervent apostles. Jewish intellectuals, in particular, brought to the Socialist ranks their acute critical intelligence, unabashed rationalism, devotion to justice, and high ethical ideals.” The road to serfdom had been paved with the noblest intentions and Talmudic acumen.

Wistrich’s historiography demonstrates definitively how Marx’s identification of bourgeois capitalism and the Jews’ supposed “cult of money” guaranteed that the messianic secular dream of collective redemption at the heart of leftist ideology would be ineluctably linked to the annihilation of Judaism. Declaring contemptuously that “the bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew,” Marx predicted that “as soon as society succeeds in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism—huckstering and its conditions—the Jew becomes impossible.” No wonder that Hitler, in Mein Kampf, credited Marx with revealing to him the solution to the world’s ills. Abolishing the “empirical essence” of six million Jews would be a good start.

To be sure, the conflation of Judaism with usury had long preceded Marx. Martin Luther had updated ancient Jew-hatred with renewed venom; two centuries later, the poison infected none other than the “enlightened” Voltaire. That witty (and famously stingy) philosophe contemptuously accused the Hebrews, that “ignorant and barbarous people,” of having “long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition,” only to be outdone by his German contemporary of sometime Jacobin persuasion, Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In 1793, Fichte accused the Jews of constituting, of all things, “a powerful state . . . continually at war with all the others, and that in certain places terribly oppresses the citizens.” If “the Big Lie” had yet to become a tool of statecraft for the Politburo, few claims can rival this one for sheer absurdity.

By the 19th century, the image of Jews as a Volk (nation) afflicted with terminal egoism, and obsessed with commerce and business, had become commonplace. The radical journalist Ludwig Borne’s assault on the “money-devil” after 1808 fed the rising tide of “progressive” Jew-hatred in Germany. Thus the practice of linking Jews “with the all-devouring Moloch of Mammon,” observes Wistrich, became increasingly prominent in socialist writings after 1840. The first German socialist, Moses Hess, writing in 1843, went so far as to identify “the Jewish Jehovah—Moloch” and the Christian God with human sacrifice, capitalistic cannibalism, and social parasitism.

Yes, both Borne and Hess were Jewish. And yes, they shared Marx’s hostility to their ancient culture. But Marx the philosopher succeeded in creating the ideological superstructure, by mixing the militant atheism and opposition to private property of the anti-Semite Bruno Bauer with Ludwig Feuerbach’s materialist metaphysics, which reduced all action to economic determinism. Marx’s sinister inverted alchemy would turn gold into dust. And (eventually) soap.

How could this descendant of a long line of rabbis claim that “The God of the Jew is money”? This “ugly and baseless libel,” writes Wistrich, stems from Jewish self-loathing. Even the anti-Semitic sociologist Werner Sombart, who a century later sought to hold Jews responsible “for the entire development of modern financial capitalism—especially its less appealing features,” recognized the admirable tradition of learning, discipline, sobriety, and varied talents of the Jews. Marx never did; his conviction that abolishing private property would bring utopia on earth overshadowed the horrific real-life effects of his toxic ideology. An intellectual murder-suicide defined his apocalyptic vision.

By the 1880s, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) had been thoroughly infected with anti-Semitism. Most if not all SPD members of all faiths believed that the Jews deserved the contempt of the German masses as payback for the “murderous role” their usury had played under feudalism, abusing the peasants. Ironically, what they saw as the real threat was philo-Semitism, or expressing sympathy for Jews, for it implied protecting the ruling class, and was therefore “the last ideological disguise of exploiting capitalism.” Many socialists fervently believed in a politically unifying role for anti-Semitism—that it would coalesce into an anti-bourgeois uprising, as a catalyst to the great Marxist upheaval. Besides, they “obviously realized that defense of the Jews was not a vote-catching cause in Vienna.”

Marxist Jews obviously could not accept the racial aspect of anti-Semitism, for were they not themselves living proof that “de-Judaization” (the purging of all Jewish characteristics) was possible? Yet by endorsing the ideal of a world without Jews as such, they implicitly endorsed the hatred. Convinced universalists, they rejected all “superstition,” their own ancestral tradition above all, in exchange for communism.

Proletarian Revolution as a Substitute Religion

None did so more fanatically than the true architect of the Soviet state alongside Vladimir Lenin: Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known as Trotsky. “Marxism would become for him a kind of revolutionary religion, an Idea of captivating power, subsequently embodied in the dictatorship of the Party,” writes Wistrich. This devotion “had an apocalyptic edge in the defiant belief that history would justify all the sacrifices required to bring about a new social order of harmony and justice.”

Yet Trotsky was no fool. Like the other Bolsheviks who were Jewish, he was aware that rejecting one’s Jewish roots did not change how one was perceived by one’s comrades. Russian anti-Semitism had become deeply engrained, especially after the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1903, allegedly the transcript of a conversation among Jewish leaders to take over the world by controlling the press and world economies. Though denounced in the London Times in 1921 as a bizarre, clumsy forgery (by the tsar’s secret police), the Protocols remains the single most influential anti-Semitic tract of all time. It proved useful in the time just after the Russian Revolution, during the young USSR’s outreach to the Muslim world inaugurated at the infamous 1920 Baku conference. At Baku, the revolutionaries, in seeking Muslim allies, called for a “holy war” (jihad) against the West and against “Zionist imperialist oppression.” To this day, Hamas cites the Protocols to justify its policies of attacking Israel and the Jews.

Except for its short-lived support for Israeli statehood, which Wistrich calls nothing but “a shrewd chess move” by Stalin that he expected would aid communist penetration of the Middle East, the Soviet Union led the campaign against Israel and the “imperialist” West. The campaign only intensified with time, and the Protocols were still being distributed as the USSR’s end drew near, at the 1990 Writers’ Congress in Moscow.

The evidence painstakingly documented here, of the extent and effectiveness of Soviet political warfare, will astonish even the best-informed reader. Nor is it surprising that this campaign would outlive the fall of the Iron Curtain. The myth, inaugurated by Stalin during the anti-Semitic show trials of 1952, has penetrated the Left’s DNA.

The Marxist-Islamist Ideological Axis

What Wistrich calls “the Holocaust inversion of the Left, which execrates Zionism as a form of Nazism, is still very much with us today.” He lays out the baneful formula this way: “capitalism begat fascism which begat imperialism which begat Israel and its proxy Zionism—the ultimate form of racist domination—sponsored, of course, by the ‘Great Satan’—the United States of America.” Holocaust inversion depicting Palestinians “as ‘the Jews of today,’ has been especially resonant in Germany (and in Europe more generally) as a way to escape any responsibility for the Nazi past,” he writes.

The Jews of today would do well to have a look at From Ambivalence to Betrayal, unwelcome though its news might be, especially to those (a majority, in the United States) who lean left. For the betrayal is ultimately of ideals, which are noble in many respects, but utterly unrealistic. Supporters of the Women’s March such as the Jewish Voice for Peace, whose members describe themselves as “proud to be part of a diverse and growing progressive and leftist movement in the United States,” see themselves as “part of the global movement for justice in Palestine.” The movement they are really part of is that of murderous enemies of both America and Israel.

Wistrich’s conclusion is as timely as ever: “Anticapitalist antisemitism underpinning radical antizionism is an integral part of the Marxist-Islamist ideological axis which seeks to redeem the contemporary world from the sinister ‘plots’ of American imperialism and the yoke of Zionist oppression.” The common roots of the socialist Kool-Aid sold at inflated prices on Western campuses, often by Jewish professors, and reality-inverting Islamism are manifest. Naïve marchers may never understand; the rest of us simply cannot afford not to.