A common thread in left-wing politics is egalitarianism. Across the West today, liberal and socialist parties and activists fight for various progressive causes, from anti-racism to increased welfare to gay rights. One of the oldest forms of prejudice, however, one with deep roots in European history, remains embedded in the political left. Anti-Semitism has not been adequately addressed across the West, from places as disparate as the US and Poland.
Hatred of Jews, and their subsequent persecution, have appeared again and again in varying forms and degrees across Western history. Common explanations include the perception of Jews as an economic competitor during periods of economic upheaval, the usage of Jews as a scapegoat in times of national crisis, distinct political cultures of racism, and simple religious or racial prejudice. Regardless of the cause, Europe has been a bastion of anti-Semitism for a thousand years, the place of origin of terms such as blood libel and ghetto, the site of the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust.
While such violence seems far from everyday western life, that same prejudice lives on. In the US, anti-Semitic incidents grew by 57% in 2017 according to the Anti-Defamation League. The growing prominence of the alt-right is a factor. Meanwhile, college campuses notably have seen a more than 250% increase in white supremacist activity and an 89% increase in anti-Semitic incidents. This increase is mostly attributed to more harassment and vandalism; the number of assaults at least has decreased. Present anti-Semitism is not just an American problem. In France, Jews make up less than 1% of the population, yet in 2014 slightly over half of all racist attacks targeted Jews. These statistics are comparable in other European countries such as Great Britain, where many Jews have faced violence.
While anti-Semitism traditionally has been and remains strong in far-right politics, the left cannot escape responsibility for the role it plays in perpetuating this prejudice. In the UK, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies, the activist Ken Loach “refused to rule out Holocaust denial as legitimate” while simultaneously claiming that he had never heard any anti-Semitic statement in all his time in the party. At the British Labour Party conference, leaflets were handed out which equated Israel with Nazi Germany. It is morally reprehensible to use the genocide of Jewish people as a rhetorical tool to make an argument about Israel, especially since Nazis are now a universal symbol of hatred for Jews. Despite all this, Len McCluskey, leader of the largest trade union in the UK said that anti-semitism accusations were just from people who were trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. In France, Gerarde Filoche, a member of the French Socialist Party’s national bureau tweeted an anti-Semitic comment against Emmanuel Macron. Filoche has since been expelled from the Socialist Party.
This kind of behavior is not just limited to establishment left-wing parties. The progressive left has also not done enough to counter anti-Semitism within its ranks. The Women’s March, a protest movement against the US President and an expression of women’s rage, was led by three women of color–Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory, and Linda Sarsour. It became a potent symbol of the power of the progressive left in the US but these aforementioned co-chairs have ties to Louis Farrakhan, an American religious leader with a strong and open dislike of Jewish people, claiming that “the Jews have control over these agencies of government”. The three women have been reluctant to criticize him due to all the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan’s religious group, has done for impoverished African American communities. However, the progressive left cannot hope to build a more equal and just world upon ethnic hatred. Besides the hypocrisy of fighting against racism while being anti-Semitic, common perceptions of Jewishness are distractions from systematic issues. The stereotype, for instance, of Jewish people secretly controlling financial systems allows popular pressure against elites to be channeled in a way that does not threaten the prevailing economic structure.
Meanwhile, anti-Jewish practices often cloak themselves in other issues. For instance, Poland has recently placed restrictions on kosher slaughter and the export of kosher meat in the name of animal rights. While other European countries have also restricted kosher meat due to animal rights concerns, the passage of this law on the heels of the Holocaust Law which makes discussing any role the Polish state or people played in the Holocaust punishable by prison or a fine points to an ulterior motive. To be fair, one of the major issues of our time in is how to reconcile the rights of ethnic and cultural minorities with dominant norms and standards. Many other European countries have restrictions which either ban slaughter without stunning, which is a requirement for kosher meat, or limit the kosher slaughter of animals to local consumption. This, in turn, makes it difficult for observant Jews to live a religious lifestyle and keep their culture alive. I should note that while animal welfare is usually a left-wing concern, in the Netherlands animal welfare activists worked with the far-right Party for Freedom to promote a ban on kosher and halal slaughter in 2010.
Recently, the Israeli-Arab conflict and Arab Muslim anti-Semitism have complicated how the left addresses anti-Semitism. Anti-Jewish prejudice often excuses itself as anti-Israeli action. In pro-Palestinian rallies in Germany, slogans such as “Jew, Jew, cowardly pig” used to be common before they were banned. Anti-Semitism in the name of anti-Israeli action still happens: for instance, pro-Palestinian youths looted Jewish businesses in Parisian suburbs. Recently, the Chicago Dyke March banned people carrying flags with the Star of David on a rainbow background. Although the people carrying the flags were, in fact, pro-Israeli, banning the Star of David itself equates Jewishness with a political identity. The Chicago Dyke March’s explicit aim is to uplift marginalized communities, but by clamping down on Jewish self-expression it is itself discriminating against a marginalized group.
Much of today’s violence against Jews in Western Europe comes from Muslims—but these communities are themselves disenfranchised and the target of right-wing animus. For instance, President Trump’s decision to relocate the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem was followed by a rash of attacks on synagogues and threats against Jews. A sizeable portion of the anti-Jewish violence in Sweden comes from immigrant Arab Muslims, but many left-wing activists, politicians, and policymakers are reluctant to criticize immigrants from the Middle East due to a fear of inciting Islamophobia. Many Muslims face discrimination or even violence. It is worthwhile to note that after the recent spate of violence, many leaders from Muslim organizations rallied around the Jewish community to show their support and address anti-Semitism. Of course, the vast majority of Muslims do not condone violence and not all Muslims are anti-Semitic. While it is difficult to address anti-Jewish sentiments in Muslim Arab communities in a way that does not incite anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim prejudices, this is still necessary work for the political left, which broadly strives to create a more egalitarian society. There is no such thing as choosing a more or less worthy form of discrimination to shelter in the name of the greater good.
Addressing anti-Semitism on the left is important because the threat of discrimination and violence against Jewish people remains across the west. Until progressives can address anti-Semitism, they will be complicit in the very same systems of power they claim to be against. A non-racist society cannot exist while one form of ethnic discrimination can be excused. At the same time, across Europe communities of Jewish people have existed for hundreds of years but are shrinking. Many Jewish people are considering moving to the US or Israel. The loss of these communities would be a loss to the cultural heritage of Europe. Their continued existence and cultural contributions to the places they live in contradict the dangerous idea that countries should be homogenous ethnically, culturally, and religiously.
Featured Image Source: Voice of America