ack in July, the Spanish far-left coalition Podemos/UL protested against the visiting President Obama with a cartoon that showed an obliging black man slipping a stash of dollar bills into the pocket of a wide-eyed, grinning orthodox Jew. This portrait of America’s first black president as a humble house slave was shocking enough, as well as evidence that racism is not solely the preserve of the extreme right. But the Jewish caricature, complete with a Star-of-David-embossed kippah, peyos, and a dollar sign on his shirt, was the familiar character that has consumed the anti-Semitic imagination for centuries.
Professional anti-Semites don’t innovate very much. From the hellfire writings of the early Church fathers to the warped imaginations of the Podemos graphics department, agitation against the Jews has always been marked by common themes: original sin, rejection of the divine, observance of a law that elevates the material above the spiritual, usury, ritual murder for religious or political gain, treachery, clannishness, overwhelming power exercised in secret.
That is one reason why reading anti-Semitic texts can be so mind-numbing. Once you’ve acclimatized to the demonic language and wild idiocy, it all becomes rather dull. For that reason alone, the Italian academic Michele Battini is to be congratulated for his perseverance in wading through volumes of anti-Semitic texts penned by long-forgotten figures—among them minor aristocrats, fanatical monarchists, violent anarchists, and other exotic types. The result is his important new book, Socialism of Fools.
Battini’s focus is the relationship of anti-Semitism to anti-capitalism. The American scholar Jerry Z. Muller covered similar ground in his 2010 book, Capitalism and the Jews, but while Muller paid the greatest attention to recognized intellectuals like Montesquieu, Marx, and Sombart, Battini’s dive into the archives of the lower divisions of European thought, much of it from the 19th century, offers valuable insight into the propensity of Jew-hatred to swell among the ranks of the disaffected.
The title is taken from an 1894 interview with the German socialist leader August Bebel. With the phrase “socialism of fools” (which Battini says is more accurately translated as the “socialism of the imbecile”), Bebel got at the most important change in anti-Semitic thinking since the charge of “deicide.” That was, and is, blaming the ravages brought by the advancing market economies of the 19th century upon the Jews as a collective—which was and is expressed politically, as Battini writes, by identifying “the cause of that catastrophe with the emancipation of the European Jews.”
Exhibit A in Battini’s catalog is an 1806 French text, Sur les Juifs, authored by one Viscount Louis de Bonald. Temporarily exiled from France by the revolution of 1789, Bonald returned to his country to find the ancien régime undergoing a relentless institutional and intellectual attack. His immediate foes were the revolution’s philosophes, many of whom regarded the emancipation of the Jews as a necessary condition for a regime of political and economic liberalism. The combined and connected arrival of a market economy with full civic and political equality for the Jews—which caused Adam Smith, in the Wealth of Nations, to joyfully exclaim that Jews were now “active citizens of the State: a title which, contemplated by the newly enacted Declaration of the Rights of Man, would be regarded as the highest degree of happiness, and honor to which a human being could aspire!”—was for Bonald a horror.
Moreover, he continued, the philosophes had been duped. While they preached universalism, the Jews were exploiting their emancipated status by remaining “stubbornly faithful” to their own non-French law, expressed most provocatively through the practice of lending money at interest, or “usury.” Infuriated and resentful at the spectacle of Jewish financiers becoming “the high and mighty Lords of Alsace,” Bonald ridiculed the distaste of the philosophes for “feudalism” when “I know of nothing more feudal for a province than eleven million mortgages owed to the usurers.”
Battini argues that there were two main consequences to Bonald’s screed. First, it set the basis for contributions from later anti-Semites like the Catholic writers Edouard Drumont and Charles Maurras, who saw in Jewish emancipation the final surrender of the church to secular authority, as well as socialists like Pierre Proudhon—author of the famous “property is theft” maxim—whose identification of the Jews with “usury” allowed Bonald’s ideas, as Battini says, to enter “the realm of socialist literature.”
Second, Battini asserts that Bonald’s text, despite having “hitherto been ignored by scholars of modern anti-Semitism,” should properly be regarded as “a paradigmatic document of anti-Jewish anticapitalism”—in other words, as a foundational text for this particularly lethal form of anti-Semitism. This is a key observation, since that dubious honor is often awarded to Karl Marx for his 1844 work “On the Jewish Question.”
There is no doubt that Marx’s writings and private correspondence are peppered with vulgar references to Jews; he once referred to his socialist rival Ferdinand Lassalle as a “Jewish ni**er” and argued, in “On the Jewish Question,” that “money is the jealous God of Israel.” But actually, what really matters for historians is the context in which Marx was arguing. Looked at from that vantage point, his contentions about the Jews were, ironically, comparatively civilized.
The occasion for “On the Jewish Question” was a book on the same topic by Marx’s fellow German, Bruno Bauer, who argued fervently against emancipation. Marx’s response, which Battini says became part of the culture of the Marxist movement, was to support both emancipation and assimilation. Since Judaism and the capitalist economy were essentially the same, Marx came to the conclusion that true emancipation was the “emancipation of society from Judaism.”
If Marx never specified exactly how this state of affairs might come about, and to what extent it would be brought on voluntarily or by compulsion, it is clear that those who claimed his mantle leaned far more toward compulsion. The early Bolshevik Party included a Jewish section, the “Yevsektsiya,” whose primary mission was to stamp out any expressions of Jewish national separatism. Its targets ranged from the socialist “Bund,” which regarded the Jews of the former Pale of Settlement as a bona-fide nationality, to the Zionist movement, which was the main target of the 1919 decision in the Soviet Union to ban the teaching of Hebrew. By the 1930s, the exile of Leon Trotsky (a Jew) and the first of Stalin’s purges unveiled the oft-murderous anti-Semitism that was to define the USSR’s officially “anti-Zionist” policy towards both its Jewish minority and the State of Israel until its dismantling in 1990.
This monstrous lineage—from Marx to Gorbachev—raises the question of how far Battini’s understanding of anti-Semitism as the linkage of anti-capitalism with anti-Judaism can explain developments outside of the French, German, and Italian cultures upon which he concentrates. He recognizes that Marx’s underlying assumptions about Judaism were basically useless when it came to addressing the “oppression and persecution” in Eastern Europe, “in which the prevailing condition of the Jew was not that of the merchant.” But Battini himself does not have much to say about this matter.
Battini is a historian, and the value of his book lies in his thesis that anti-Semitism was a core pillar of the anti-democratic and illiberal thought that flourished in the 19th century on left and right.Nor does the strain of overtly racial anti-Semitism promoted by the Nazis occupy Battini too much. He examines the ideological provenance of the Italian racial laws promulgated by Mussolini’s regime in 1938 and mentions the 1935 Nuremburg Laws in passing, but he does not explain how the various currents of anti-Semitic thought that he traces from the previous century might have influenced the Nazi ideology of “blood and soil,” which determined that the “racially poisonous” Jews had to be exterminated regardless of their degree of assimilation. As for the Jews of the Arab and Islamic worlds, they are invisible both in terms of significant historical events (such as the Damascus “Blood Libel” affair of 1840, during which the local French consul whipped up violent fervor against the Jews following the disappearance of a Catholic monk and his Muslim servant) as well as in Battini’s overall analytical framework, which excludes non-European sources of modern anti-Semitism, like the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The elephant in the room here is Battini’s treatment of the relationship between the anti-Semitic texts and movements which he analyzes and contemporary expressions of anti-Zionism. Readers hoping for a substantive probing of these connections are advised to look elsewhere, although that isn’t necessarily a criticism. Battini is a historian, and the value of his book lies in his thesis that anti-Semitism was a core pillar of the anti-democratic and illiberal thought that flourished in the 19th century on left and right. But he does choose to address the subject in its contemporary form, and what he has to say is so unsatisfying that one questions why he felt the need to include it at all.
He avoids any examination of the role of the New Left in promoting a ‘new-old anti-Semitism,’ and doesn’t consider the meaning of the anti-Semitic terrorism carried out by non-Arab groups.The problem here is not just Battini’s mandatory nod to the “ferociously unjust” policies of Israel toward the Palestinians; let us stipulate that one can, at least in theory, be a critic of settlement policy in the West Bank without falling into the bear pit of eliminationist anti-Zionism. It’s that his overall argument is hasty and weak. The anti-imperialist left’s depiction of Israel as an outpost of American capitalism is decried by him as illogical because of the Soviet Union’s tactical recognition of Israel in 1948, but that statement that raises far more questions than it answers. He spends a few paragraphs discussing the “new anti-Jewish anti-capitalism and anti-Semitism” that was particularly and violently pronounced in France in the early 1980s. But he avoids any meaningful examination of the role of the New Left in promoting this “new-old anti-Semitism,” and does not even pause to consider the meaning of the anti-Semitic terrorism carried out by non-Arab groups like the Japanese Red Army and Germany’s Red Army Faction during the 1970s.
Battini is correct when he concludes that anti-Semitism in our time revolves around the notion that “‘Judaism’ is power because Israel is an actual political power and because the American Diaspora is a financial power.” Expressed like this, we can perceive the continuity between the anti-emancipatory anti-Semitism of early capitalism and that which has crystallized in its current, globalized form. Yet his claim that Israel’s “prevarications against the Arab populations of Palestine” act as grist to the mill of today’s propagandists is a lazy and commonplace argument—all the more so as the overall thrust of his book makes clear that there was little correspondence between anti-Semitic theorizing and the actual behavior of Jews.
More specifically, Battini doesn’t recognize the major distinction between regarding Israel as an outpost of U.S. power and regarding Israel—and therefore “Judaism” as a form of power—as its source. And that, as we know only too well, is the favorite obsession of the fools and imbeciles who articulate anti-Semitic ideas in the name of opposing racism—another one of those rare innovations of the anti-Semitic mind, and the subject for a different book.
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Government is the problem.
An enormous cultural tragedy unfolded Sunday night when Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was gutted by fire and largely destroyed. Its priceless collections ranged from paintings and ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts, to anthropological collections and mineral specimens. The gallery housed one of the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas. It was also home to a 470,000-volume scientific library, one of the largest in Brazil. Much of it was lost.
Happily, no one was injured. It is, however, thought that no more than 10 percent of the 20 million items in the collection were spared. Fortunately, one of them is the Bendegó meteorite, a nearly six-ton iron meteorite that was found in 1784.
What could have caused this catastrophe? The answer, simply, is borderline criminal neglect by the government. To be sure, Brazil has been engulfed now for several years in both recession and a financial corruption scandal that makes Tea Pot Dome look like penny-ante. One president has been impeached and removed; another is in jail. The museum budget has been cut time and again until there was not enough to even maintain the building, which featured peeling paint, exposed electrical wiring, and plumbing leaks. But the maintenance budget of the museum was only 520,000 reals, not even a rounding error in a total federal budget that is well north of a trillion reals.
There was no fire suppression (i.e., sprinkler) system in place, nor, apparently, smoke alarms. Only four guards were on duty in the vast building. When the fire department arrived, the two nearest hydrants had no water, and it had to be trucked in from a nearby lake.
Just further proof, as if any were needed, that governments should not be allowed to run anything they do not absolutely have to run.
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A missed opportunity.
Following a punchy 15-minute talk about the ravages of online bullying on Monday, Monica Lewinsky took her place alongside star Israeli news anchor, Yonit Levy, for a chat about the issues she has turned into a life mission. The Jerusalem convention hall was packed with A-list political and media types on hand for Ms. Levy’s whopper of an opener.
“Do you still expect a personal apology from President Clinton?”
Lewinsky abruptly rose, politely stating: “Sorry. I can’t do this.” And left the stage.
The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor has been buzzing about this very American reality/ambush moment, speculating as to what really happened. Nothing, it seems, is ever as it, well, seems.
Viral video of the encounter shows Lewinsky very calmly putting down her microphone, leaving her fireside chat chair, and striding confidently offstage. Levy did her best to feign casualness and followed, very awkwardly. It made for cringe-worthy watching.
A few hours after the mishap, Lewinsky said that Levy had personally misled her alleging that they had agreed in advance on very clear parameters that were acceptable for discussion. “In fact, ” stated Lewinsky on Twitter,” the exact question the interviewer asked first, she had put to me when we met the day prior. I said that was off limits.”
She said, she said.
On behalf of Levy, Israel News Company, the conference organizer, is standing firm. In a statement, they claimed that all agreements with Lewinsky were honored and that the offending question was squarely within the scope negotiated for her appearance.
Lewinsky was thanked by Israel News Company for her insightful talk, respected for her sensitivities, and wished all the best.
Keeping up her end of public politesse, Lewinsky apologized to the audience for the unfortunate manner in which the talk ended.
“I left,” Lewinsky explained on Twitter, “because it is more important than ever for women to stand up for themselves and not allow others to control their narrative.”
Fair enough. I would have thought, however, that Lewinsky could have more than held her own in the duel with Levy. They are both strong, intelligent women. It would have had far more impact if Lewinsky cleverly and boldly exposed the chicanery to which she alleged she had been subjected.
“Yonit,” she might have asserted, “I came here to speak about and discuss internet bullying. Our written and verbal agreements are very clear that you are not to ask questions on this topic and I refuse to answer them. I’m happy to proceed with this interview on the agreed upon terms. Otherwise, I will have no choice but to cut this exchange short.”
Levy would have been loath to engage in a pedantic exchange parsing the details of legal and verbal agreements, and I expect the producer coaching in her earpiece would have instructed her to shift gears. In a flash, Lewinsky would not only have continued to control her “narrative,” but she would have demonstrated the authority, finesse and confidence that, regrettably, is required to do so.
Exactly what transpired between Lewinsky and Levy is unclear and, in many ways, irrelevant. Much more significant is the commendable work that Lewinsky has done in educating the public about the extreme perils of cyberbullying and shaming. For those who haven’t yet watched her superb Ted talk on cyber-bullying, do so.
As a veteran of decades of misogynist battles and sexual harassment in the professional and media milieux, I also urge Lewinsky to invest in some reinforced armor if she wants to ensure that her message and insights are heard and continue to influence the public discourse on these very critical issues.