In 1893, the German labor leader August Bebel breezily dismissed anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools.” From then to the present day, the Western left has been disturbingly complacent about Judeophobia. Communists and socialists of various stripes have persistently underestimated the impact, distinctiveness, and longevity of anti-Semitism. Even today, significant strains of the American and even the Israeli left are far less exercised about global anti-Semitism than the supposed transgressions of the Jewish state. A review of the hard left’s various answers to the “Jewish Question” makes clear that equivocation on anti-Semitism and antipathy toward Israel are enduring, complementary elements in Marxism’s wrongheaded materialist interpretation of world affairs.
Few Marxists have attempted to address Judeophobes’ fundamentally demonic view of the world or the mythical power of anti-Semitic archetypes of “the Jew,” such as Judas, Satan, and the Antichrist. Similarly, few have tried to decipher the phantasmagoric conspiracy theories at the heart of so many anti-Semitic beliefs. This failure contributed to how the Western left viewed the rising anti-Semitism of the Nazis in the 1930s. Very few socialists, anarchists, or Communists (apart from isolated mavericks such as Wilhelm Reich) showed much grasp of the psychology of fascism, let alone addressed seriously the Manichean worldview of anti-Semites before the Holocaust.
Let us begin with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the SPD deliberately played down anti-Semitism and generally avoided any direct attacks on it. The SPD’s paralysis went beyond the fear of challenging the popular prejudices of German workers inside the Third Reich. It was a fundamental failure of the imagination. Both German socialists and Communists grossly underestimated the integrative power of irrational thinking and the centrality of racial anti-Semitism in Nazi ideology. They didn’t see the great qualitative difference between traditional Jew-hatred and Nazi anti-Semitism, which they reduced to a mere political instrument of “reactionary” forces to bring down the Weimar Republic. After 1933, they still regarded Jew-hatred primarily as a tool for consolidating Hitler’s dictatorship.
For the German left, the essence of Nazism was not the destruction of the Jews but the crushing of the working class. They saw Kristallnacht as little more than a trial balloon for more repressive measures against German society as a whole—not as a massive offensive against the Jews. Many left-wing German intellectuals in exile believed that Jews suffered no more than others, and they argued that overemphasizing anti-Semitism would only weaken the anti-Nazi campaign. Writing from postwar Germany in the summer of 1945, Klaus Mann (son of Thomas Mann), who had served as a staff sergeant in the 5th U.S. Army, was still treating the fate of the Jews as a secondary issue; he dismissed the Jews as a “dreary” subject, and the Holocaust as neither special nor significant.
Even Franz L. Neumann, the leading expert on Nazism among Marxist analysts in the Frankfurt School, failed to grasp the genocidal intent of Nazi anti-Semitism during the war years. In 1942, writing from his American exile while the mass murder of European Jews was already well under way, Neumann published his classic work on National Socialism, Behemoth. He confidently asserted that the Nazis would “never allow a complete extermination of the Jews.” Neumann reasoned that anti-Semitism was essentially a means to other political ends, such as the destruction of free and democratic institutions. For Neumann, like so many academic analysts, it was simply inconceivable that the Jewish Question could be anything but marginal in the Nazis’ overall project. Hannah Arendt, it should be noted, was one of the few German-Jewish exiles in the United States to challenge this conventional wisdom.
Beginning in the 1930s, leftists sought to downplay Nazism itself and the uniqueness of the fate Jews suffered during the Holocaust. They found answers to comfort themselves by concentrating on the economic roots of fascism in Germany’s decaying liberal-capitalism and by drawing parallels between the Nazis and other fascist regimes. For many leftists, then and now, the Holocaust was a mere epiphenomenon of capitalism—almost incidental to the fascism that, reputedly, becomes so appealing whenever capitalist economies fall into crisis.
Among leftist intellectuals right after the Second World War, a partial understanding of anti-Semitism’s uniqueness was often the best one could hope for. Nobody could accuse the French existentialist Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre—a novelist, playwright, and philosopher—of lacking imagination. His Réflexions sur la Question Juive (1946) was a courageous and perceptive essay. And yet not even his combative opposition to anti-Semitism was without racial stereotypes. Almost incredibly, he could still believe after the Holocaust that a socialist revolution would “solve” the “Jewish Question.” At the time, Sartre was a Communist fellow traveler. In a society without classes, he unwisely predicted, anti-Semitism would be cut off at the roots. It was, he thought, a “petty bourgeois” and “poor white” phenomenon that did not resonate among the working class.
Sartre’s closest collaborator, Simone de Beauvoir, was more clearheaded. She was relatively free of such illusions and more committed to Israel than was her long-term companion-in-arms. Born into an upper-middle-class provincial Catholic family in which conventional anti-Semitism was almost “normal,” Beauvoir had been shocked by the Holocaust and moved by Israel’s postwar struggle for national rebirth against an increasingly obstructive British colonialism. Her pioneering feminist engagement made her especially sensitive to the humiliating situation of European Jews, subjected as they were, to continual anti-Semitic insult and exclusion even after the Shoah. She saw Israel’s battle for survival as a heroic drive for liberation. By their ceaseless labor, creativity, courage, and attachment to the land, Zionist Jews had, in her eyes, earned their indisputable right to an independent state. Although not uncritical of Israel’s policies, Beauvoir sharply disagreed with the anti-Zionist positions of her more militant French comrades. As early as 1973, she expressed her consternation at a growing strand of anti-Semitism masked as “anti-Zionism” that was taking hold on the French left. She was also fiercely critical of Arab efforts to annihilate Israel and of the support these efforts received from the Soviet Union. For Beauvoir, the justness of the Israeli cause was a matter of personal conviction that transcended the divide between right and left.
Other “old left” intellectuals, such as Claude Lanzmann, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, also resisted the crude post-1967 efforts to link Israel with “imperialist” interests and the Arab states with peace-loving socialism. For this school of thinkers, it was self-evident that Israel was the only democratic nation in the Middle East and that its neighbors constantly threatened its very existence. In 1967, Marcuse—then the premier guru of Western radicals—recalled, in a discussion with left-wing German students, that Jews had for centuries “belonged to the persecuted and oppressed” peoples; that “not too long ago six million of them were annihilated”; and that Israel was a refuge where Jews would no longer need to fear persecution. And Sartre emphasized Israel’s vulnerability as well as its legitimacy. While publicly neutral, Sartre nonetheless regarded the 1973 Yom Kippur War as a clear-cut case of “criminal” Arab aggression.
Both Sartre and Beauvoir unequivocally opposed the totalitarian “anti-Zionism” that had emerged in the Soviet bloc after the Six-Day War and that would become a central element in Soviet foreign policy in the Arab world. Anti-Semitic “anti-Zionism” in the USSR appealed to xenophobic, ethnocentric, and populist sentiments against Jews in the lower classes and to the resentment of prominent “Muscovite” (pro-Soviet) Jews during the early postwar years. After 1967, it also served as an agent against liberalization and dissent. For example, in order to discredit the Solidarity resistance movement in Poland in 1981, its activities were blamed on the alleged machinations of “Zionists,” Freemasons, and cosmopolitan liberals in the West.
Some of the left’s anti-Israel sentiment stemmed from an older tradition of Marxist anti-Zionism that was not informed by Jew-hatred. Militants such as the young Belgian Trotskyist Abram Leon (martyred in Auschwitz at the age of 26) were fierce opponents of anti-Semitism while adamantly opposing Zionism as “petty bourgeois” utopianism. Like most Trotskyists of Jewish origin, Leon blamed the cataclysmic Jewish tragedy of the 20th century almost solely on the “decay of world capitalism,” which, he naively predicted, would also doom the “puerile dreams of Zionism.” Thinkers like Leon assumed that any retention of Jewish cultural uniqueness was deleterious.
The “assimilationist” school of Marxism even repudiated non-Zionist forms of Jewish nationalism (like the Bundists, who favored cultural-national autonomy in the diaspora). Indeed, there was never a possibility that orthodox Marxists would recognize a diasporic Jewish nation any more than one rooted in the soil of Zion. The handful of Jewish radicals in the West who had ever argued the Jewish autonomist case (as the French anarchist Bernard Lazare did in the 1890s) were isolated among their comrades. Well before 1914, the likes of Lenin, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg had told the Bundists that they would have to obliterate their Jewish identity if they sought to be fully emancipated. And they were denounced by Lenin and Trotsky as “separatists,” “chauvinists,” and “isolationists” for simply raising the question of an autonomous Jewish proletarian culture. Georgii Plekhanov (the father of Russian Marxism) mocked the Bundists as “Zionists afraid of sea-sickness.” Convinced that the emancipation of the Jews meant the dissolution of any Jewish peoplehood, early Marxists were unable to imagine that Israel might actually emerge as a Jewish nation-state. Its creation and survival have been a slap in the face for Marxist theory.
And what of Great Britain, given the fact that it was the English who first formally recognized Jewish national aspirations (in the Balfour Declaration) and given Britain’s role in fighting and defeating the Nazis? The Jewish Question took a somewhat different course on the English left. As late as the 1970s, some older Labour members of Parliament, such as Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Ian Mikardo, Sydney Silverman, and Richard Crossman, retained a marked sympathy for Israel—though this was less visible among left-wing English academics and intellectuals. Just to take one example: The historian Eric Hobsbawm, the veteran icon of the British left, considered Jews at best a phantom people whose contemptible nation-state illustrated the proto-fascist features of all reactionary nationalisms.
In the early 1980s, however, the British Labour left came under the spell of ideologically driven anti-Zionist positions that were far removed from reformist Labour politics and much closer to Trotskyism. Indeed, despite the pro-Israel instincts of New Labour prime ministers such as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the “anti-racist” anti-Zionism of the present-day British left flirts openly with anti-Semitism. As is the case elsewhere in the West, British leftists vehemently deny holding any prejudice while they pillory Israel for provoking Arab hatred and anti-Semitism.
Similarly, in the United States, there are leftist intellectuals (not a few of them Jewish) who depict the “new” anti-Semitism as a straightforward and understandable response to Israeli occupation. In their view, the Jews themselves are to blame for the aggression they face. This is a classic anti-Semitic proposition.
The distinctive trajectory of American leftist radicalism has shaped its approach to anti-Semitism and Israel. In the economically depressed 1930s (the heyday of the Soviet utopian myth), American academics, intellectuals, and artists were drawn to Communism in significant numbers. During Stalin’s mass liquidations and purges, many American Communists continued to defend the Soviet Union. Even the Nazi-Soviet pact found some left-wing apologists in the United States. Only after 1945 did the star of American Communism gradually begin to fall.
In the 1960s, the Communists were replaced by a generation of leftist radicals who were more overtly anti-American than their forebears. The Vietnam War, nuclear disarmament, civil rights, free speech, drugs, and the student rebellion assumed center stage. A sweeping anti-American agenda found purchase, and the United States was relentlessly denounced from within as an “imperialist” predator seeking hegemony over Third World nations. At the same time, Communist crimes were systematically whitewashed. Prominent in these anti-anti-Communist campaigns were a number of Jewish academics, among them Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk. They strongly supported the Vietnamese Communists against the United States, whose military actions they vilified as “genocide.”
It was only a matter of time before similar hyperbolic charges were leveled at a triumphant, American-allied Israel. In the spirit of the new Third Worldism, American left-wing academics came to identity with the Palestinian cause. Falk, in fact, proved to be so pro-Hamas that the Palestinian Authority voiced its displeasure at Falk’s 2001 appointment as special rapporteur to the UN on Palestinian human rights.
Falk has found, moreover, no evidence of religious, ethnic, or gender intolerance in the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has gone so far as to suggest that the Islamic Revolution has much to offer to Third World nations as “an example of non-authoritarian governance.” Falk has, however, proclaimed that America and Israel continue to practice “genocidal geopolitics.” In February 2009, Falk, who is a Jew, said that Israel’s three-week incursion into the Gaza Strip had evoked “the worst kind of international memories of the Warsaw Ghetto.” This mendacious comparison of the war between Israel and the terrorist Hamas regime to Nazi Germany’s deliberate starvation and murder of Warsaw’s Jews in 1942 has become increasingly popular in the Western left.
Equally revealing is the case of the late Howard Zinn, Boston University historian and author of the bestselling A People’s History of the United States. Zinn, a Marxist and admirer of Mao Tse-Tung and Fidel Castro, never disguised his view of America as a repressive, racist, and imperialist nation guilty of repeated genocide. His opinion of Israel was scarcely more balanced, though he had been brought up in a working-class Jewish home in Brooklyn and served as a bombardier in World War II. Zinn acknowledged that until 1967 Israel did not loom large in his consciousness (this was the case for many other American Jews). But by the 1982 Lebanon War, he had become “ashamed” of the Jewish state and convinced that its establishment was “a mistake,” indeed “the worst thing that the Jews could have done.” Israel, like the United States, was violent, bigoted, and driven by nationalistic frenzy. It had turned its back on what was best in the Jewish tradition: internationalism, creativity, and emphasis on cultural achievement. Israel’s existence and actions, for Zinn, had become the main source of anti-Semitism in the world. Zinn, like many left-wing Jewish anti-Zionists, described the subjugation of the Palestinians mythically, as a form of “ethnic cleansing.” He ignored, of course, the real “ethnic cleansing” of Jews from Arab lands after 1945. Zinn’s work shows not the slightest recognition of the jingoistic, racist nature of Arab nationalism or the genocidal threat posed by radical Islam.
Such perverse inversions of reality speak to a disturbing Manichean dualism. Hatred for America, the West, and Israel thrives beneath the cloak of human rights and social justice. This fanciful branding has not prevented the cause of the “oppressed” from being represented by dictators such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, and Yasir Arafat. These tyrants have often been worshipped by Western radicals as defenders of “Third World peoples” against U.S. imperialism and Zionism. International solidarity with the Palestinians has given a counterfeit halo of respectability to the world’s most despicable characters. The Islamists are only the latest in a long line of manipulative exploiters of Palestinian or Third World misfortunes. All have indulged in the demonization of Israel as a “genocidal state” engaged in “ethnic cleansing from the day of its birth.”
This analysis is now peddled by a growing numbers of leftist, anti-Zionist academics within Israel as well. Such rhetoric, divorced from historical truth and geopolitical reality, negates any possibility of reform or redress concerning genuine grievances. Shlomo Sand, a historian at Tel Aviv University, represents one particularly virulent strain of such “negationism” with his claim that both the concept of “Jewish People” and of Eretz Israel (“the land of Israel”) are mere fictions or Zionist inventions. This former Israeli Trotskyist militant, trained in France (where his pseudoscientific delegitimization of Israel has enjoyed great popularity) has revived long-discredited theories—such as Arthur Koestler’s deranged notion that Ashkenazi Jews sprang from Khazars who converted in the 10th century C.E.—to sever the Jews from their biblical ancestors. Wholly irreligious himself, Sand insists that Jews are linked by religion alone; he categorically rejects the Jewish identity of Israel and has announced to the world that he no longer considers himself a Jew. For Sand, Zionism can be understood only as the distillation of racism itself.
Small wonder that the worst enemies of the Jewish state regard Sand’s work as invaluable. What could be better than an Israeli intellectual undermining the very roots of Jewish history, religion, cultural memory, and national identity in the land of Zion? Did not Yasir Arafat deny to President Bill Clinton at Camp David that the Jews had ever built or worshipped in the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem? Is it not commonplace in Palestinian Authority media to deny any connection between the Western Wall in the Holy City and the Jewish past? Has there not been a systematic Arab effort, led by the Palestinian Waqf, to destroy any material trace of the ancient Jewish presence in Jerusalem dating back more than 3,000 years?
In the “post-Zionist” narratives of Israeli historians such as Ilan Pappé (formerly an active member of the Israeli Communist Party, Hadash), the entire Jewish national project is a nightmarish tale of occupation, expulsion, discrimination, and institutional racism perpetrated by alien and demonic Zionist invaders. In such accounts, the Palestinians are the permanent victims; Israelis are forever the “brutal colonizers.” According to Pappé, the “Zionist” ethnic cleansing of Palestine was already in full swing in 1948. It was a long-premeditated crime that has been escalating ever since. We increasingly find Jewish anti-Zionists presenting their certificates of divorce from the Jewish state, issuing petitions against Israel’s “apartheid wall” (the security fence to defend against Palestinian suicide bombers), and denouncing Israel’s allegedly racist oppression of local Arabs. At the same time, “progressive” Jews seem indifferent to the suffering of Israeli civilians—the innocent victims of so many savage Palestinian atrocities—including the recent murders of three Israeli teenagers near Hebron. The “progressives” shed tears for Palestinian children, but they invariably turn their heads from the dead of their own people, the Jews. This is a perverse form of humanism in which the systematic denigration of Israel coexists with a wholly romanticized and abstract “Palestinophilism” devoid of any critical thought or normal human solidarity.
Contemporary Marxists and Islamists share a curiously similar apocalyptic agenda of earthly redemption that aspires to the installment of absolute “social justice” through violent means. For both parties, Palestinian martyrdom has become a glowing symbol of “resistance” not only to Israel but also to globalization and the “corrupt” West. At the heart of such radical utopianism, there is the quasi-religious belief that the world will only be “liberated” by the downfall of America and the defeat of the Jews. This chiliastic fantasy has today emerged as a notable point of fusion between the radical anti-Zionist left in the West and the global jihad. Meanwhile, in the real world, the transnational jihadi warriors are in the process of conquering large swathes of northern Syria and Iraq and establishing a new base for their Islamic caliphate. In dealing with these and related challenges involving the porous borders of an imploding Arab Middle East, a bankrupt Marxism has nothing to offer. Indeed, its de facto alliance with the Islamists is perhaps the final stage of its slow death.