By CARLOS SAPIR
Accompanying the rise of far-right politicians and organizations in the U.S. over the past few years, we have seen a rise in antisemitism, both in terms of hateful rhetoric and actual violent attacks against Jewish communities. The resurgence of a form of bigotry that had largely disappeared in prior decades is highly unusual, but antisemitism’s return alongside the far right is no coincidence: antisemitism is central to the fascist understanding of the capitalist economy. By blaming the evils of capitalism on an imaginary cabal of Jews, fascism attempts to misdirect genuine disillusionment with the capitalist economy into xenophobic nationalism that only serves the capitalist ruling class.
The material roots of antisemitism
Modern antisemitism has its historical roots in late medieval Europe, a period in which economic life across the continent was being upended by the beginnings of capitalism. Recognizing the revolutionary threat posed by the transformation of the feudal economy and the undermining of royal authority, a section of the rising European bourgeoisie needed a scapegoat to pacify the growing threat of peasant and proletarian upheaval while ensuring that its own piece of the capitalist pie was secure.
Antisemitic preachers such as Bernardino of Siena found their mark in the form of the Jewish people, blaming them for the poverty experienced by European peasants and calling for them to be expelled from Christian countries. To justify this, Bernardino and other demagogues theorized an artificial division within the capitalist economy, between “good,” “virtuous,” and “Christian” production and “evil,” “international,” and “Jewish” finance.
These antisemitic theories provided the groundwork for future fascist theorists. Jews were particularly convenient scapegoats since they had historically been confined to moneylending and petty trade in the feudal Christian economy, and had been beginning to see an improvement in their living conditions as these professions became more central to the nascent capitalist economy, in contrast to their peripheral position in the feudal economy. Although the reality of capitalism is exploitation in all sectors of the economy, the intellectual precursors to modern fascism were able to promote their theory that only “Jewish” capitalism was to blame, and to misdirect anger and unrest into attacking Jews.
This understanding of the economy (or alternatively, world politics) as being controlled by an evil cabal of international Jewish financiers has been central to the fascist political program for its entire history, both before Hitler and afterward. While anti-Jewish sentiment had existed in Europe prior to the rise of capitalism, the protofascist theories that tie it to capitalism are central to its continued resurgence and to its place in fascist ideology. Meanwhile, to align with the shifting superstructure of European societies and the waning influence of centralized Christian religion, the religious focus of early antisemitism diminished in favor of a racial definition, with the Nazis eventually formalizing a conception of Judaism-as-race, modeling their system of racial lineages after the Anglo-American model of race deployed against Black and Indigenous peoples.
Fascist antisemitism in the U.S. and Western Europe was redoubled in the early 20th century as the fascists turned to face the rise of socialism in Eastern Europe. As a political movement that promised economic reorganization and fought against all forms of oppression, socialism had an immediate appeal among the poor and disenfranchised of Eastern Europe, and thus was readily embraced by many Jewish people living in Eastern Europe in impoverished conditions. The fascists seized this opportunity to recast Jews as dyed-in-the-wool communists. As fascist politics have always been based on emotional appeals and rhetorical sleights of hand, the obvious contradiction, that a single ethnic group could not possibly be the driving force behind both capitalism and communism, was irrelevant, suppressed by the promotion of the unifying thread of Jew-hatred as an overriding struggle for the fascist in-group.
Popular understandings of antisemitism
Although the above, historical-materialist understanding of antisemitism has been adopted by Marxists and academic theorists alike, popular discourse around antisemitism often draws on one of two distinct narratives: an ahistorical, essentialist understanding of antisemitism promoted by bourgeois Jewish institutions, and a negationist refusal to acknowledge antisemitism by some layers of the left.
The essentialist narrative of antisemitism, most prominently promoted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), as well as AIPAC and the state of Israel itself, is extremely simple: Jews, for whatever reason, have always been persecuted and always will be persecuted. While there is a superficial truth to this narrative given the long history of anti-Jewish oppression, which includes the period predating modern antisemitism stretching back into antiquity, this theory abdicates its responsibility to actually explain why antisemitism occurs.
Moreover, the solutions to antisemitism that it lends itself to are abysmal: with Jew-hatred abstracted to a pervasive, ubiquitous, and permanent evil, the only responses are either to support the Zionist solution of Jewish nationalism within a Jewish state or to give up on winning the fight against antisemitism. In practice, these institutions have fallen lockstep behind the Israeli state to the point that they ignore how the state of Israel itself promotes antisemitism abroad: by fomenting anti-Jewish sentiment across the global South, by promoting fascist rhetoric about “globalists,” by promoting the fascist narrative that Jews are “foreigners” who should go back to “their” country, and by forming alliances with overt fascists and Christian Zionists. By prioritizing a hollow defense of Israel over fighting actual antisemitism, groups like the ADL end up spending their time hounding Palestinian activists and anyone who dares show solidarity with them on spurious charges, while often looking the other way when their Zionist allies don their fascist hats. In doing so, they undermine opportunities for anti-oppression solidarity between Jews and other groups.
The negationist understanding of antisemitism picks up right where the ADL leaves off. Observing the way that the ADL and other groups have aligned themselves with institutions of bourgeois power in the U.S., as well as the racist colonial outpost that is the Israeli state, and also noting the lack of overt economic discrimination against Jews in the U.S., negationists come to conclusion that antisemitism does not exist (at least in the U.S.). This perspective ignores how antisemitism is vital to the fascist understanding of the world, and that it is central to its attempts to grow. It also ignores the very real way that antisemitism expresses itself: through violent acts of terror carried out by fascists, first as individuals (such as at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018) and eventually by organized groups.
How to fight fascism and antisemitism
Having established that modern antisemitism is baked into the fascist defense of capitalism, the missing pieces explaining the peculiarity of antisemitism’s expression in the 21st century become clear: During times of relative stability, antisemitism is unnecessary for the bourgeoisie to maintain power, and thus it lies dormant, at the fringes of society. When economies collapse, however, and workers feel the full brunt of capitalism’s injustice, fascism marches into action, selling the disenchanted a reactionary fairytale.
Although in the United States in the early 20th century, there was anti-Jewish discrimination in employment, housing, and college admissions, the specific political circumstances following World War II motivated the U.S. state to further suppress antisemitism (and to a lesser extent, fascism writ large) in order to retroactively justify the nobility of its participation in the war, leading to the virtual disappearance of economic discrimination against Jews in the U.S. In the 21st century, however, with Nazi Germany a distant memory and capitalist crises on the horizon, fascism and antisemitism are once again useful tools for a section of the bourgeoisie.
Capitalism’s crises will continue to provide fertile ground for antisemitism and fascism to spread. The solution to antisemitism is thus the same as the solution to fascism and capitalism: It must be defeated by the organized mobilization of the working class to end capitalist exploitation and destroy the forces of fascism. It requires socialists to counter the spread of fascist apologia for capitalism, to uproot its spread by winning workers over to socialism and a materialist understanding of history that allows for the formation of united fronts of workers and the oppressed.
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