Personally, I am inclined to view anti-Semitism as a right-wing phenomenon. I recognize that this is in part because of my own biases – as a leftist myself, I tend to see the worst in the political right. It also has to do with the realities of history, as some of the most infamous documents of the anti-Semitic canon, like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were produced by reactionary, right-wing propagandists, and the Holocaust was spearheaded by the ultra-right Nazis. And finally, it is the right-wing, Republican president-elect, Donald Trump, who has brought anti-Semitism back into mainstream American politics with his Twitter account, his closing campaign ad, his “war on Christmas” rhetoric, and his embrace of white supremacists. I’ve felt the effects of Trump’s campaign and rise to power in my own life as well: my hometown has witnessed a rash of anti-Semitic graffiti in its public schools, and I’ve seen an uptick in right-wing anti-Semitic comments (some of my favorites from my most recent article include Holocaust denial, Jewish “mafia mentality,” and the time-old conspiracy theory that Jews control the banks). Nevertheless, as important as it is to combat anti-Semitism in all of these contexts, we also cannot ignore anti-Semitism on the left.
It is easy to forget that the left has its own history of anti-Semitism, but from the very foundations of leftist politics in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the movement has been plagued by Jew-hatred. Voltaire, for example, was a vocal anti-Semite, and Moses Mendelssohn, a great Jewish thinker of the Enlightenment, was berated by his peer scholars for not accepting the Christian values that they viewed as at the core of their theoretically secular ideology. In the wake of the French Revolution, Jews were regarded as backward people who were unready (or unfit) to be Enlightened, and moreover revolutionaries often considered them to be necessarily at odds with the peasant class because they were so often moneylenders (Europe’s structural anti-Semitism had forced them into those professions).
In another pivotal moment in the development of the left, Jews found themselves victims of the Russian Revolution as well. During the Russian Civil War, although major Jewish factions sided with the Red Army, both the Red and the White forces were plagued by egregious anti-Semitism and carried out serious anti-Semitic pogroms (violent demonstrations and massacres). After the Soviet Union was established, Soviet authorities exploited anti-Semitism to help them maintain their rule in Poland, in part by facilitating still more pogroms. Joseph Stalin staged the “Doctors’ Plot” in an attempt to purge the Soviet Union of political enemies and to stoke popular outrage against the Jews. Furthermore, the Soviet Union was a pioneer in the use of anti-Zionism as a tactic for disguising anti-Semitism, conflating the words “Jew” and “Zionist” when attacking local Jewish communities and popularizing the unique association of Israel with “apartheid” in international discourse. Gamal Abdel Nasser and other populist leaders who sometimes called themselves “Arab socialists” used that same conflation to expel hundreds of thousands of Jews, regardless of their political beliefs, from their countries of residence.
This history is important because those same ideas still exist on the left today. I’ve written before about anti-Semitism on my majority-leftist campus, and about the ways in which anti-Zionism is almost inextricably linked with anti-Semitism, but the issue goes beyond that as well. I remember as a child attending a Holocaust commemoration ceremony in Boston and seeing with surprise that a group of leftist activists had gathered to protest our mourning, for example. Last weekend, I received a personal threat of sexual violence via Facebook, directed toward “the Jew” – the man who threatened me blocked me immediately afterward, so it’s difficult to ascertain his political affiliation, but certainly his angle was anti-Zionist. I recently heard about a fellow student’s claim that Jews control the American government as well, again from a leftist activist. These are not isolated incidents – they are real problems with deep roots in leftist political history.
This is an especially important time for us all to be combating right-wing anti-Semitism, and all other forms of bigotry and racism as well. But it’s important that we on the left not merely add anti-Semitism to our list of legitimate grievances against the right without seriously examining the history of Jew-hatred all over the political spectrum. As much as I would like to think of anti-Semitism as a uniquely right-wing problem, in reality we need to confront it wherever it exists. One of our most valuable qualities on the political left is our ability to challenge systems of oppression not only when we see them advocated by our adversaries but also when they are embedded in our own worldviews. So I’m calling on my fellow activists on the left to stand up to all forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitism, not only among our political adversaries but also among our friends and within ourselves.