The fight against antisemitism today is beset with difficulties.1 Challenges come from three directions. First, there has been a documented increase in antisemitism across the globe.2 To deflect from crises our ruling classes are encouraging the rise of bigotry and scapegoating. When that happens, all forms of racism and prejudice increase. Second, accusations of antisemitism have been weaponised to attack the left—former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn being the most prominent victim in Britain. Third, there is the continuing brutality of the Israeli government towards Palestinians, which can lead to a false conflation between the Zionist state and all Jews.
To deal with this toxic combination the radical left needs a clear and carefully considered strategy. The perils of getting it wrong, and the benefits of getting it right, were illustrated by what happened in April this year to Labour MP Diane Abbott and BBC football commentator Gary Lineker. Abbott was suspended by Labour after claiming that discrimination against Irish people, Travellers and Jewish people was somehow equivalent to those with other “points of difference, such as redheads, who can experience this prejudice”.3 She has since completely recanted. Abbott’s example shows how even a principled anti-imperialist and anti-racist can present formulations regarding Jews and oppression that create self-inflicted damage, detracting unnecessarily from our common fight against all forms of racism.
By contrast, Lineker issued a tweet saying the language used by the government to justify its cruel asylum proposals was not dissimilar to that used in Germany in the 1930s. He was suspended by the BBC from his commentating role, but such was the scale of support he received that he was quickly reinstated.4 Reminding people of the continuity of racism past and present exposed the mainstream media and the horrible reality of the immigration policies supported by both the Conservative government and the Labour Party.
Antisemitism and the far right
In 2018, a useful definition of contemporary antisemitism appeared in the Guardian, signed by Jewish academics and celebrities:
Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice or hostility against us because we are Jews. It is a form of racism. It may be manifested in violence, denial of rights, discriminatory acts, prejudice-based behaviour, verbal or written statements, negative stereotypes, or scapegoating. Holocaust denial, the blood libel, conspiracy theories about supposed Jewish power or the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide—are all expressions of antisemitism… Criticism of Israel is not antisemitic unless motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice.5
Prejudice against Jews is one of many forms of racism. Antisemitism might appear not to be of prime contemporary relevance because, in Europe, Muslims, migrants and Roma people tend to be the most common targets of more direct racist attacks. However, this is misleading. Although antisemitism reached its apotheosis in Nazism, its particular form means it persists because it offers an anti-establishment gloss that the scapegoating of other groups does not provide. Antisemitic ideology appears to offer an explanation for otherwise seemingly inexplicable catastrophes, crises and social conflicts. Although the explanations it offers are bogus, it plays an important role in mobilising the social forces that the far right, and fascists in particular, seek to unleash.
Elements of the antisemitic stereotype were shaped over a long historical period, before being bundled together into a racist schema. During European feudalism, landownership was the main economic form, and Christianity was the dominant ideological force. As the main non-Christian minority, Jews were not allowed to own land and were segregated into urban ghettos. Alongside commerce and artisanal crafts, some survived by moneylending—an essential but despised function that was forbidden to Christians. This established a connection between Jews and money within popular ideology, and this would be deployed by antisemites. Then, as towns further developed, Jews were scapegoated by the rising non-Jewish bourgeoisie, the new ruling class in waiting. To muscle into the profitable economic functions to which Jews had been confined, emerging capitalists often accused them of unfair monopoly practices.
The 1789 French revolution initiated Jewish emancipation and paved the way for modern capitalist nation-states that combined legal equality with nationalism. With the ghetto smashed open, Jews could participate in public life. This coincided with the formation of an industrial proletariat. Jews radicalised by oppression and poverty were present in its ranks and played a leading part in working-class struggle in many countries. It was also in this context that the modern form of antisemitism arose, particularly in the wake of the economic crisis in the early 1870s, with organised antisemitic political forces emerging in much of Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. Antisemitism was widespread, and it became fully institutionalised in contexts such as Tsarist Russia before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and, later, in Hitler’s Germany. After 1881, the Russian government unleashed pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) using the slogan, “Save the Tsar, beat the Jews!”. Some 600 laws targeted Jewish people, until the revolution abolished them overnight. Following the First World War, sections of the elite in Germany countered the country’s November Revolution of 1918 by drawing on myths of a supposed “Judeo-Bolshevik’” conspiracy. Such myths were already in circulation among the European elites following the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War that followed. Later, Hitler would develop and deepen this theme and, during the Second World War, initiated the systematic murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
Belief in Jewish global financial power and manipulation still finds adherents because it provides an illusory explanation for wrongs generated by capitalism. A Jewish stereotype makes a more credible culprit for the miseries of capitalism than migrants in menial jobs and refugees possessing no more than the clothes on their backs; the “hidden hand” of an almost invisible global enemy endowed with infinite economic power is a more fitting pseudo-explanation for the deprivations of the system. So, when Manhattan’s district attorney, Alvin Bragg, served an indictment on Donald Trump in April 2023, the ex-president accused of him of being “hand-picked and funded by George Soros”.6 Soros is not only a rich Jewish man—he is also associated with humanitarian support for refugees and Roma people through the non-governmental organisations he has created. In May 2023, in a similar fashion to Trump’s claims, Twitter owner Elon Musk said that Soros “wants to erode the very fabric of civilisation. Soros hates humanity”.7 This antisemitic trope is not only invoked in the United States. The right-wing British politician Nigel Farage had said Soros is “in many ways the biggest danger to the entire Western world”.8
Promotion of these arguments by elected politicians and other prominent figures in the capitalist class has encouraged a widespread revival of antisemitism. A recent CNN poll found that, of those in the US asked, 20 percent said Jews had too much control over the media; 30 percent thought that Jews have too much influence over business and finance; and 30 percent also thought Jewish people use the Holocaust to advance their own position.9
As Rob Ferguson has shown, mainstream antisemitism has also been systematically revived in Eastern Europe.10 After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, reactionary politicians needed to replace the discredited ideology of Stalinism. New populist political forces promote a crude nationalism that once more draws on Jews as scapegoats, alongside Muslims, migrants and Roma people.
In 2018, while on the campaign trail, Viktor Orbán, the far-right populist Hungarian prime minister, described Soros an enemy that is “unlike what we are”: “It is not national, but international. It does not believe in work but speculates with money. It is not generous but vengeful, and it always aims at the heart. Europe and Hungary are in the very midst of a civilisational struggle”.11 In June 2022, Orbán said: “Now it’s completely obvious that there are business circles that have an interest in the Ukraine war, and they are symbolised by Soros”.12
The special role of antisemitism for fascism
Right-wing populists embrace antisemitism as part of efforts to promote reactionary currents in general. However, for fascists and neo-Nazis, antisemitism has a special significance. They use the ideology to help cohere a movement that can bid for political power from outside the ranks of the capitalist class, deploying mass violence and seeking to break any resistance to their rule.
Reacting to the 1917 Russian Revolution, inter-war fascism in Italy and Germany was overtly counter-revolutionary. Its purpose was to smash the working class, using a movement that comprised the petty bourgeoisie (small-scale owners of capital) at its core. Although it is possible to argue that, in the abstract, fascism does not need antisemitism, concretely, vilification of Jews has played a central role, allowing fascists to deploy a pseudo-revolutionary language and project themselves as an anti-systemic force. Binding together a social movement with petty-bourgeois elements at its core necessitates lashing out at “international finance” and “global power structures”, while also rejecting working-class organisation and left-wing criticisms of capitalism. Nazism mobilised small business owners, along with groups of professionals and middle-class elements, in times of economic crisis by simultaneously channelling their feelings of powerlessness and frustration against the organised working class and capitalist big business.
Some leading Marxists were Jewish and, when the left drove up wages, squeezing small business owners, and challenged the property system, this was attributed to the Jews. Members of the petty bourgeoisie were often indebted to financial institutions and faced competition from large corporations in the marketplace. This was also blamed on Jews. As one Nazi newspaper put it 1923:
How wonderfully the stock exchange Jew and the leaders of the workers…cooperate. Moses Cohen…encourages other bosses to refuse the workers’ demands, while his brother Isaac in the factory incites the masses.13
As a pseudo-critique of society, antisemitism still functions as a powerful ideological glue for the neo-Nazi right, binding its members together. With it, supporters believe they are somehow anti-capitalist, not just racist, and this helps them key into issues such as unemployment, poor housing, inflation and decaying services. The rage and despair engendered by capitalism is thereby transmuted into a current that can operate outside conventional parliamentary parties and structures. This can turn into physical violence vented against a wide variety of innocent targets, including the working class as well as other oppressed groups.
Antisemitism’s imaginary worldview can be flexibly repurposed as events develop. The Covid-19 pandemic saw a huge increase in conspiracy theories, which by their nature look for small groups orchestrating the chaos. Blaming Jews fitted this scenario perfectly, and the far right has been very active in anti-vaxxer groups. In 2020, for instance, Ivo Sasek, a Swiss Holocaust denier, posted, “There is another laboratory in Wuhan that works with viruses—financed by US billionaire Soros”.14 In New York, conspiracy theorists waved swastikas and sported yellow stars on one mobilisation.15
Often neo-Nazi antisemitism is more overt and unashamed. Greece’s Golden Dawn has a version of the swastika as its party emblem. Mark Collett, the leader of Patriotic Alternative, a group currently mounting protests against refugees in Britain, “has repeatedly praised Hitler and recommended Mein Kampf”. The Homeland Party, a split from Patriotic Alternative, chose Hitler’s birthday as the date on which to found itself.16 In 2017, a “Unite the Right” rally brought US Nazis chanting of “Jews will not replace us” onto the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.17
Antisemitism remains a glue that holds neo-Nazis together. As Eric K Ward, a black US anti-racist activist, wrote in 2017:
Jews function for today’s white nationalists as they often have for antisemites through the centuries—as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils… Antisemitism is a particular and potent form of racism so central to white supremacy that black people will not win our freedom without tearing it down.18
The far right after the Second World War
Though attractive for neo-Nazis, antisemitism is tainted by widespread horror at the Holocaust. This is an obstacle to the respectability that fascist leaders sometimes seek to court and to building openly fascist, racial supremacist groups. Nick Griffin, former leader of the British National Party, said that his party’s biggest problems were the “three Hs—hobbyism, hard talk and Hitler”. He meant that party members should be careful about violence, overtly racist language, Holocaust denial and Nazi-worship.19
Some organisations are willing to sacrifice broad appeal by openly denying the Holocaust. Golden Dawn denies the existence of gas chambers, even though 70,000 Greek Jews (81 percent of the Jewish population of Greece at the time) were sent to Nazi death camps.20 However, this tends to be the exception. Neo-fascist organisations typically try to distance themselves from the Holocaust (whatever the private thoughts of their leaders and cadre) in order to win popularity.
In an earlier edition of this journal, Mark Thomas pointed out the fascist right has “masks that it wears to conceal its real project”.21 Indeed, this is what France’s Marine le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (“National Rally”, formerly known as the Front National or “National Front”), does when she remains silent about her father’s Holocaust denial. However, sometimes the masks worn by present-day fascists slip. Le Pen’s rival on the French far right, Éric Zemmour, leader of the far-right Reconquête (“Reconquest”) party, limits the French establishment’s responsibility for the Holocaust by lauding the collaborationist Vichy regime for deporting foreign Jews before French Jews.22 Georgia Meloni, leader of the fascist Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy”) and current Italian prime minister, also let slip her real views when she posted a tweet claiming Soros “has chosen the left as ally, making those who believe in national sovereignty his enemy. We, the Fratelli d’Italia, proudly say keep your usurious money—our force is the Italian people”.23
In Eastern Europe the contortions required are even greater. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party exonerates every Pole from involvement in the Holocaust, despite historians revealing significant evidence to the contrary. In 2018, it became illegal to link Poles or Poland to Nazi atrocities.24 An example of the stories to be repressed was the pogrom at Jedwabne in 1941, when ethnic Poles exterminated up to 1,600 Jews, incited or directed by the Nazis. In Hungary, Orbán describes Admiral Miklós Horthy, who ruled the country from 1920 to 1944, as an “exceptional statesman”.25 In 1919, Horthy launched the Hungarian “White Terror”, which saw up to 3,000 Jews murdered. During his rule, Hungary became the first European state to introduce antisemitic legislation following the First World War. He went on to support Benito Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s, entering the Second World War on the Axis side in 1940. In 1944, over 434,000 Hungarian Jews were departed to Auschwitz over ten weeks, with the whole Hungarian state apparatus involved in this effort.
The impact of the Israeli state
Today, however, it is claimed that hostility towards Jews mainly comes from a different source than fascism and the right. Antisemitism is alleged to manifest itself primarily in disagreements with the existence of the State of Israel on Palestinian soil, as well as in challenges to the ideology that underpinned the creation of Israel, known as Zionism. The link suggested by proponents of this view is false. The perpetrators of the Holocaust were motivated by the antisemitic ideology described above, not hostility to Zionism. The key criterion for the Nazis was whether their victims’ grandparents were Jews, not their specific political views, whether conservative or Communist, religious or secular, Zionist or anti-Zionist.
Zionism’s central tenet, formulated by Theodor Herzl in 1896, is that Jews are racially incompatible with others: “We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country”.26 Consequently, “Antisemitism increases day by day and hour by hour among the nations; indeed, it is bound to increase”.27 Zionism promotes the aim of an exclusive Jewish homeland to which Jews can escape. Forging such a homeland in Palestine required allying the Zionist project to the dominant imperialist powers in the region—initially, in the early 20th century, Britain, and then later the US.28 In 1948, in the wake of the Second World War, Zionist settlers were able to establish Israel through the expulsion of most of the Palestinian population. In exchange for imperialist support, as Ha’aretz put it in 1951:
Israel is to become the watchdog. There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy towards the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the US and Britain. Yet, if for any reason the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied upon to punish one or several neighbouring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.29
That Israel is no bulwark against antisemitism is illustrated by the fact that antisemites such as Orbán, who have no belief in Jewish equality, support its existence. As racists they are happy with the existence of a place elsewhere for Jews to be. As pro-imperialists they admire militaristic ethno-nationalism and Israel’s aggressive handling of Palestinians (and Muslims). Orbán famously welcomed Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hungary, and Netanyahu describes Orbán as a “true friend to Israel”.30 Fascists in France, the Netherlands, Britain and many other countries have also expressed pro-Israeli sentiments. Meloni has said, “I believe that the existence of Israel is vital, and I will make every effort to invest in greater cooperation between our countries”.31
Antisemitism as a slur against the left
Another element in the political situation is the weaponising of the charge of antisemitism to attack the left. If this accusation is believed, the consequences are serious. The most important example of such left-baiting was directed at Corbyn, a long-standing critic of imperialism and Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people. Though innocent of the charge, after becoming leader of the Labour Party in 2015, he was attacked politically by being labelled antisemitic.
Historically, the record of the Labour right, who now proclaim themselves as the champions of Jewish interests, is a sorry one. It goes back to Sidney Webb, who drafted the party’s constitution and was Labour’s most prominent right winger at its foundation, who once said, “French, German and Russian socialism is Jew-ridden. We, thank heaven, are free”.32 When the left mobilised against the antisemitic British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the 1930s, it was reported, “The Labour Party has not yet issued a single leaflet or pamphlet on the subject and has definitely tried to prevent all members of the party from taking part”.33 In 1936, the Labour leader of London County Council, Herbert Morrison, condemned the 300,000 demonstrators who helped to break the BUF by stopping its march through Cable Street in London’s Jewish East End: “I have no more sympathy with those who desire to stimulate disorder from one side as I have with those who desire to stimulate disorder from the other”.34 As home secretary during the Second World War, Morrison determined “not to admit…Jewish refugees” fleeing the Nazi’s bloody conquest of Europe.35 After 1945, the Labour government, headed by Clement Attlee, invited over 200,000 Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Ukrainians (including an 8,000-strong Waffen SS Division that had surrendered to British and US troops in May 1945), but it kept out Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.36
The climate that allowed the Labour right to make its case against Corbyn was heightened through the examples given as part of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. These included “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.37 The worth of the definition can be seen in the fact it was officially endorsed by the US government under Trump, Orbán’s Hungary and the Polish government. It seeks to delegitimise descriptions of Israel as a settler-colonial, apartheid and racist state. In doing so it risks labelling as antisemitic groups such as Amnesty International, who in February 2022 published their report into human rights in Israel and Palestine, Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: A Cruel System of Domination and a Crime against Humanity.38
In mobilising the claim of antisemitism against Corbyn and others, Labour’s right plays a dangerous game that undermines efforts to expose the real antisemites and ends up targeting fighters against racism. Corbyn’s own record in defence of Jews is clear. For instance, he was involved in organising the defence of the Jewish population of Wood Green from a neo-Nazi march in 1977. In April 2000, he signed a parliamentary Early Day Motion condemning David Irving for his Holocaust denial. Corbyn also condemned the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in East London in June 2005 and has visited Terezin concentration camp to commemorate Holocaust victims.39 The one accusation made against Corbyn that holds more weight was his initial support for an offensive mural in East London. The mural used antisemitic imagery, and it is right that it was removed. When the nature of the mural was pointed out, his response confirmed a principled objection to antisemitism: “I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image that I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and antisemitic.” He added: “The defence of free speech cannot be used as a justification for the promotion of antisemitism in any form. That is a view I have always held”.40
The slur that the left is consciously and deliberately antisemitic is further refuted by the fact that left-wing Jews are systematically accused of antisemitism too. According to the campaign group Jewish Voice for Labour, Jewish members of Labour are five times more likely to face expulsion than non-Jews.41
As part of its armoury, the forces out to discredit the left wingers claim that today’s left is intrinsically guilty of a “new antisemitism”, a charge also commonly directed against Muslims and Arabs.42 This categorisation is highly problematic for several reasons. Initially coined to ward off criticism of Israel, it makes a false equivalence between the left and the far right, smearing opponents of the system with the taint of the worst barbarism perpetuated by that system.
Contrary to the smears, the left’s historical record of opposition to antisemitic forces, both in theory and practice, is outstanding. Examples include the Russian Revolution, which emancipated almost half of the world’s Jewish population in 1917 and made Russia the first country to outlaw antisemitism; the struggles against fascism in Poland, Austria, Britain, Spain, Germany and elsewhere during the inter-war period; and the mass resistance movements to Nazism during the Second World War. Many paid with their lives. They did so because the core of left-wing thinking revolves around the ideas of human equality, internationalism and social justice.
Nevertheless, whatever the origins of the accusation, people on the left are not immune from making mistakes and causing self-inflicted damage. Indeed, the dishonest and hypocritical nature of the Labour right’s persecution of the left can push some into thinking that the problem of antisemitism is exaggerated and less important than other forms of racism. An anti-racist who echoes antisemitic tropes, or who suggests antisemitism is not a serious issue, presents the matter in a similar manner to the racist right, giving credence to the charge of left-wing racism towards Jews.
The same is true when the genuine brutality of the Israeli state’s actions against Palestinians leads to a false conflation of Israel with Jewish people in general.43 Antisemitic attacks in Britain tend to increase after Israeli atrocities against Palestinians. In May 2021, 256 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, including 66 children and 40 women.44 Even discounting those incidents of reported antisemitism related to criticism of Israel, there was a sharp increase in antisemitic incidents in Britain after this. A total of 173 antisemitic incidents in the category of “assaults” were recorded in 2021, an increase from 97 in 2020. Of these, three were cases of “extreme violence”, meaning they involved potential grievous bodily harm or a threat to life.45 This reinforces the point that we should not allow the lines separating the Israeli state and Jews as an ethnic group to become blurred.
The left should resist and challenge anything that further blurs this distinction. For instance, it is extremely damaging and misleading to respond to references to the Holocaust with questions such as, “What about Israel and the Palestinians?” or “What about the Palestinian genocide?”. This counterposition downplays the level of atrocity involved in the Holocaust, with its creation of factories of mass death and genocide. It also does nothing to explain, or to help resistance to, the continuing suffering of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli state. Similarly, to portray Labour politicians such as Keir Starmer as “bought and paid for” by “Zionist donors”, or in service to a “Zionist lobby”, undermines anti-racist struggles and discredits support for Palestinians.46
An example of how those on the left can get this issue wrong came in posts to Twitter by the academic David Miller on 7 August. He made a number of claims: “Jews are not discriminated against”; “they are over-represented in Europe, North America and Latin America in positions of cultural, economic and political power”; “they are therefore in a position to discriminate against actually marginalised groups”; and “Judeophobia barely exists”. The left-wing writer and activist David Rosenberg was correct to respond by stating Miller “casually removes antisemitism from ‘actually existing racism’ and seems to homogenise and stereotype Jews as if they have a common and nefarious political agenda. He seems to ignore socio-economic differentiation among Jews, and their political, cultural and ethnic diversity”.47 The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine also produced a statement that criticised Miller’s post.48
David Baddiel’s widely read and quoted Jews Don’t Count: How Identity Politics Failed One Particular Identity hones in on these issues. Baddiel is far from being above criticism—and not simply for the significant role he played in the attack on Corbyn. In the mid-1990s, he impersonated a black footballer, Jason Lee, using blackface and wearing a pineapple on his head, for which he only apologised 25 years later. His book does not discuss important concepts such as structural or institutional racism, and it ignores the visceral antisemitism of the far right, instead directing much of its polemic against the attitudes of progressives. However, some points he makes are harder to argue with, such as his criticism of the sin of omission. In 2019, Labour’s shadow secretary for women and equalities, Dawn Butler—who is no antisemite—made a speech listing who Labour would protect from discrimination. This included women, LGBT+ people, Asian people, straight people, Travellers, those who wear a hijab, turban or cross, and those who are white, black, disabled or living in social housing. Jews were not mentioned.49
Baddiel argues that antisemitism is treated differently to other forms of racism, because somehow Jews are not seen as oppressed and are depicted as white and as well off. We on the left should also challenge any attempt to minimise the problem of antisemitism. The Nazi genocide was almost entirely directed against people who were white. Moreover, the depiction of all Jews as rich is an antisemitic trope. One of the poorest boroughs in London is Hackney, and one of the poorest wards in Hackney is Stamford Hill, which has a large concentration of Charedi Jews.50 However, as argued below, we would place these arguments in the context of a more substantial argument than Baddiel musters about the nature of racism.
The left must look at every accusation of antisemitism seriously and be on guard against arguments that weaken the struggle against racism and discredit solidarity with Palestine.
The tribunes of the oppressed
How can the left genuinely combat antisemitism in a way which is differentiated from the posturing of the media, the Tories, the Labour right and Zionists?
Marxism provides a distinctive way of understanding the nature of modern antisemitism and how best to combat it. On the first point, modern antisemitism, as it developed from the late 19th century, operated as a specific form of racism and as one of the oppressions structured into capitalism, which then frames and gives rise to institutional racism and individual racist acts.51 This is one reason why it is mistaken to argue, for instance, that, because antisemitism does not always take the same form as the institutionalised racism directed at black people in Britain today, it is somehow a peripheral phenomenon—or, worse, to slip into depicting Jews as uniquely privileged or powerful.
Seeing antisemitism in this way also informs how Marxists respond to it. Here our starting point is provided by Lenin’s 1902 work, What is to be Done?, which argues that the ideal socialist should be “the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation”.52 Lenin rejects any notion of a selective response, which downplays oppression because of who it is directed against. As we have seen in the case of the attacks on Soros, tolerance of any form of oppression can be used to deepen the divisions among the oppressed and exploited. To allow this would be to lay the basis for a weakening of collective working-class resistance and the binding of a section of this class to its rulers. Moreover, in the specific case of antisemitism, as argued above, it can draw some of those crushed by capitalism into a pseudo-radical worldview that lashes out at minorities in the most brutal ways imaginable and attacks the left and the workers’ movement.
An approach drawn from identity politics, basing itself on the divergences in experiences of various sections of society, can end up viewing “the differences between oppressed groups as more important than…points of unity”. If the struggle is framed as one where “each oppressed group has to assert its own distinct identity, the result is fragmentation of the struggles, competition between oppressed groups and a turn away from campaigning for wider change in society”.53 The Leninist approach in no way seeks to deny individual’s experience or suppress and ignore cultural differences. However, Lenin’s “single picture” emphasises the common feature oppressions share. Each is the product of an unequal society, presided over by a tiny, privileged elite with an interest in perpetuating divisions at the base of society.
Leon Trotsky’s theorisation of the tactic of the united front, which was forged in the 1920s and later developed in the context of the fight against fascism in the 1930s, takes Lenin’s approach as a starting point, seeking to develop an active working-class response to specific forms of oppression. Fundamental to the united front is the idea that organisations, individuals and communities who may strongly disagree on many matters can come together “on specific issues, to correlate in practice our actions”.54 Nonetheless, each component of this united front retains the freedom to discuss and debate points of difference.
This is the basis on which groups such as Stand up to Racism in Britain have been founded. Uniting as many people as possible behind shared activities, its initiatives bring together those suffering racist oppression and workers who do not face this, along with trade unionists, left-wing politicians (irrespective of party affiliation) and minority communities (regardless of ethnic origin or religion). The predecessors to Stand up to Racism were the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and Unite Against Fascism. A vital part of the success of these earlier organisations was exposing neo-Nazi’s antisemitic obsession with Jews. It unmasked what the vast majority saw as an “unacceptable racism”, even if some of those who mobilised, at least initially, made concessions to other forms of prejudice. Due to this approach, in the 1970s and 1980s, the National Front (NF) in Britain was unable to “pose as a legitimate political party that was merely concerned about race”. The ANL reminded people what antisemitism meant. Posters emblazoned with the anti-facist slogans “Never Again!” and “NF=Nazi” showed Jewish inmates in death camps and demonstrated the full implications of Hitlerism: “The NF’s members were not just racists—they wanted to destroy trade unions, democracy and all opposing political parties.’’ This proved to be the downfall of the NF: “The ANL aimed to split the NF’s soft racist supporters from its Nazi core, and it succeeded.”55 The British National Party later suffered a similar fate.
By exposing the living spectre of antisemitism, the movement stopped the tide of xenophobia and nationalism whipped up by mainstream politicians and the media from flowing into support for a neo-Nazi movement. This helped prevent the establishment of fascism as a major force in British politics—as has, tragically, occurred in France and Italy. Nevertheless, the potential for the reemergence of the fascist menace in Britain is clear. In the context of the Tories’ intensifying demonisation of migrants, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research recently found the presence of antisemitism among those who identify as “very right wing” was two to four times higher than for the general population.
The ANL, Unite Against Fascism, and Stand up to Racism have also responded to antisemitic incidents in practice. In 2005, after the desecration of 100 gravestones at a Jewish cemetery in Rainsough, Greater Manchester, a vigil was immediately called by Unite Against Fascism.56 In 2019, Stand up to Racism organised a vigil against antisemitism after antisemitic graffiti was sprayed in the Hampstead and Belsize Park areas of North London.57 After a horrific attack hospitalised two older Jewish men in January 2022, I joined a Labour councillor and a prominent member of the Clyde Road Mosque in Tottenham to take a letter of support and solidarity to the shop owned by the victims.
The situation is not without its complications. Palestinians do suffer from racist exclusion at the hands of the Zionist Israeli state—a state that, as a result of the history of antisemitism, including the Holocaust, has the support of many within the Jewish diaspora. Some 60 percent of Jewish people in Britain identify as Zionists, and 90 percent support the State of Israel’s continued existence.58 Any internationalist, anyone who wishes to act as tribune of the oppressed, must oppose Zionism. There is a duty for socialists and internationalists to build movements in solidarity with the Palestinians. However, this goes hand in hand with opposing antisemitism, wherever it arises and against whomever it is directed.
Anna Gluckstein is a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party in North London.
1 Huge thanks to Donny Gluckstein for advice in writing this article and to Rob Ferguson for useful suggestions.
2 Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, 2022, p5.
3 Abbott, 2023.
4 Young and Holton, 2023.
5 Bindman, Birnberg and others, 2018.
6 Kochi, 2023.
7 Hetzner, 2023.
8 Walker, 2019.
9 Shveda, 2023.
10 Ferguson, 2018, pp9-19.
11 Ferguson, 2018.
12 Rankin, 2022.
13 Gluckstein, 1999, p26.
14 Anti-Defamation League, 2020.
15 Sales, 2021.
16 Lawrence, 2022. See also Briggs, 2022.
17 The notion of the “Great Replacement”, a conspiracy theory focused on a supposed plot to wipe out white people in Europe and North America through a planned influx of non-white migrants, has been invoked by the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson in more than 400 episodes of his show—see Confessore and Yourish, 2022. The theory is viciously anti-migrant and racist. Who is blamed for organising this “influx”? Predictably, the answer is the Jews. This was the explanation given by white supremacist Robert Bowers when he killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2018. A softer version of this theory has entered mainstream political discourse, with multiple vague threats of demographic and cultural displacement evoked during the National Conservatism conference in Britain in May, which was attended by leading members of the Tory government such as Michael Gove and Suella Braverman—see Beckett, 2023.
18 Ward, 2017.
19 Cobain, 2006.
21 Thomas, 2023, p19.
22 Schofield, 2021.
24 Gessen, 2021.
25 Hungarian Spectrum, 2017.
26 Herzl, 1917, p2.
27 Herzl, 1917, p10.
28 Rose, 1986.
29 Cited in Rose, 1986.
30 New Arab, 2018.
31 Beck, 2022.
32 Newsinger, 2017. Although Corbyn’s demise was due to the left-right divide inside Labour, the Labour project itself, being reformist and pandering to ruling class ideas in order to gain votes, has meant susceptibility to antisemitism in both its wings. See also Hernon, 2020.
33 Quoted in Newsinger, 2017.
34 Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p176.
35 Newsinger, 2017.
36 Newsinger, 2017. See also Cesarani, 1992.
38 Amnesty International, 2022.
39 Sagall and Humber, 2020.
40 BBC News, 2018; Stewart, 2018.
41 Hearst and Oborne, 2021.
42 Ferguson, 2018, pp23-29.
43 For an extensive treatment of how this plays out in the Arab world, see Ferguson, 2018.
44 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2021.
45 Community Security Trust, 2022.
46 See Gluckstein, 2023.
47 Socialist Worker, 2023.
48 British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, 2023.
49 Baddiel, 2021, p15.
50 See https://trustforlondon.org.uk/data/poverty-across-london
51 See Choonara, 2020.
52 Lenin, 1977, p423 (my emphasis).
53 McFarlane, 2013, p102.
54 Trotsky, 1974, p95.
55 McFarlane, 2013, p89.
56 Socialist Worker, 2005.
57 Socialist Worker, 2020.
58 Full Fact, 2018.