An unexpected direction?

Robert Wistrich lends his pen to an extraordinarily interesting and complicated topic: how and why the European Left has been anti-Jewish.

Protest against Cast Lead 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Protest against Cast Lead 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Anti-Semitism has been one of the most tragic phenomena of Europe and the Western world. As it has morphed and developed over time, those who hold anti-Semitic notions have also belonged to various groups. In From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel, Robert Wistrich tries to show “that in its early history the European Left (especially in France and Germany) was profoundly anti-Semitic as part of its atheistic critique of religion and its populist anti-capitalism.”
Wistrich, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of several major and important studies on anti-Semitism, now lends his pen to an extraordinarily interesting and complicated topic: how and why the European Left has been anti-Jewish.
One of the problems the author notes in his introduction is that “Jewish radicals, whether because of or despite repeated waves of racial anti- Semitism, often embraced Socialism or Communism with the fervor of neophytes, eager to throw off the unwanted residues of an anachronistic tribal past.”
So how can one understand a Left that is the source of anti-Semitism but also attracts so many Semites? As the author notes, “Jews themselves, it must be said, have played a central role in framing anti-Zionist thought ever since the time of Theodor Herzl.”
Thus Jews on the Left have often been deeply critical not only of the Jewish faith but of Jewish nationalism.
What the author tries to understand is how anti-Semitism was able to find fertile ground on the Left as well, not among Jews, but among their non-Jewish fellow travelers.
This book is not so much a clear chronological explanation of anti- Semitism in historical European leftist thought, but is rather primarily made up of glimpses at certain personalities and episodes that framed how anti- Semitism existed in left-wing thought.
Each chapter feels almost like a selfcontained essay. Thus there is an entire chapter examining the writings of Karl Marx and Moses Hess, two German Jews who felt particularly estranged from Judaism. Yet in their anti-Jewish statements, so argues Wistrich, “we do not find the racial judeophobia of contemporary German anti-Semites.”
Among socialists the Jews were attacked for being either capitalists or adherents of a primordial religion.
Those “such as Voltaire and d’Holbach whose rationalist attack on the Old Testament held Judaism responsible for the ‘barbarism,’ fanaticism and intolerant obscurantism which the Catholic Church had inflicted [on] the world.”
In England socialist thinkers first targeted the Jews as a group during the Boer War. In their critique of the war the “anti-war movement exploited the Jewish origins of prominent financiers in South Africa to influence public opinion and discredit the Conservative government.”
Jews were at one and the same time bashed for being wealthy and assimilating, and for supposedly clinging to a clannish religion that set them apart.
For instance, Communists attacked the Jews as being “politically reactionary” because they had survived as a people and had not vanished into the multiethnic “classes” that Marxists loved to pontificate about.
In contrast, Karl Kautsky, a Jew from Prague and editor of Die Neue Zeit, claimed that anti-Semitism was a reaction to Jews keeping to themselves.
Thus Russians committed pogroms because of the “isolation of the disenfranchised Jews in the Pale of Settlement.”
Therefore “the Zionist movement, by allegedly favoring ‘segregation,’ would, in Kautsky’s opinion, only strengthen anti-Semitism.”
The Jewish left-wing revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was particularly disaffected from her people. When she received word of suppression of Jews in Russia she snapped, “Why do you come with your special Jewish sorrows? I feel just as sorry for the wretched Indian victims of Putamayo, the negroes of Africa... I cannot find a special corner in my heart for the ghetto.”
In this anger about Jews daring to complain about suffering one sees not actually an attempt to treat the Jews equally, as Luxemburg claimed, but in fact an attempt to disregard Jews in total; Luxemburg acknowledged the suffering of the “negroes,” but had no interest in “the ghetto.”
While this is all very interesting, it makes one wonder if the real axe Wistrich has to grind is with Jewish anti-Jews, since he sheds light on how many there have been in left-wing thought.
Some of the last chapters, examining the Soviet role in propagating the notion of “Zionist Nazism” and the Left’s “Holocaust inversion” are interesting.
The Left “execrates Zionism as a form of Nazism” and thus left-wing critique is all the rage today. This inversion takes the form of claims that not only does Israel manipulate and exaggerate anti-Semitism “as a mask to cover their own [Zionist] crimes,” but “Zionist leaders were accused of having had contacts with Nazi officials in German- occupied Europe.”
One comes away imagining that for the radical Left, Zionism is almost worse than Nazism, to the point where it isn’t clear if “Nazism” as a pejorative is more related to the German crimes or the supposed crimes of the “Zionists.”
Wistrich concludes with a chapter examining the “Marxist-Islamist alliance.” Here he claims that today Jews face a combined onslaught of “populism, xenophobic nationalism, Marxist class struggle, anti-Americanism, anti-globalism, political Islam and Christian liberation theology.”
While all this is indeed shocking and it is presented in an erudite fashion, this volume nevertheless leaves the reader wondering how all these various chapters are clearly connected, since the narrative does not clearly move from one to the next.