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To Defeat Antisemitism, We Must Defeat Capitalism

Antisemitism endures because capitalist oppression needs a scapegoat. Only by democratizing the economy can the ancient hate finally be extinguished.

People participate in a Jewish solidarity march on January 5, 2020 in New York City. Jeenah Moon / Getty

Mere hours after the ball dropped in Times Square, the United States suffered its first antisemitic attack of the decade. On New Year’s Day in Brooklyn, a fifteen-year old boy was threatened at knife point, his kippah torn off as antisemitic remarks were hurled at him.

Just twenty-four hours earlier and a few miles away, a group of assailants had chased an Orthodox Jewish man down the street, punched him in the face, and bashed him with a chair. Days earlier in nearby Rockland County, New York, a machete-wielding assailant had injured five after storming a synagogue. And just a few weeks before that, two gunmen had targeted a kosher market in Jersey City in a shootout that left six dead.

These weren’t isolated incidents: antisemitism is on the rise in the United States. After dropping for more than a decade, the number of anti-Jewish attacks more than doubled between 2015 and 2017. In 2018 — the year that a gunman murdered eleven congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the deadliest antisemitic assault in US history — the number of antisemitic assaults doubled. In New York City, where nearly one in every seven people is Jewish, antisemitic crimes have jumped 21 percent in the past year.

So why is antisemitism on the rise? A surge in white-nationalist activity since Donald Trump’s election is surely the main part of the story: racist ideologues have been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks on Jews, including the Pittsburgh and Poway, California synagogue shootings. But Trump’s victory alone does not explain the spate of incidents in New York, committed in many cases by black individuals in both planned assaults and apparently random street encounters.

The Right obviously does not have an answer, beyond taking advantage of the moment to agitate for demands like armed militias and more cops in black neighborhoods. And while progressives have admirably emphasized solidarity between groups facing racism and antisemitism, they have largely failed to articulate a response beyond throwing up their hands and feebly condemning “the world’s oldest hate.”

But antisemitism is neither eternal nor inevitable. It is not a natural feature of human society, sprouting up among us as predictably as weeds in a garden. It is not a historical constant.

Antisemitism can, in fact, be defeated. But to do so, we must challenge the system that has sustained it, and that is responsible for its recent resurgence: capitalism.

Precapitalist Antisemitism

Antisemitism — a system of control and oppression that involves more than mere personal prejudice — predates capitalism. Its roots in the United States, by way of Europe, come from Christian discrimination against “Christ killers,” dating as far back as the 2nd century CE. Over the course of the Middle Ages, Christian rulers institutionalized this prejudice into legal restrictions on where Jews could live, what jobs they could work, and even what clothes they could wear.

Contrary to popular perceptions today, precapitalist antisemitism was always about material conflict as much as ignorant superstition. Under feudalism, Jews largely occupied the merchant/trader class, in between the ruling kings and nobility (Jews were barred from land ownership) and the peasant majority. While the lord of the manor was often seen as a distant, benevolent source of charity — bound as they were, however minutely, by church-mandated poverty relief — the Jew’s far less oppressive, petty bourgeois profit-seeking could feel closer and more offensive. Moneylending in particular became associated with Jews — most famously, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice — thanks to usury bans that prevented Christians from charging interest.

As a religious other, outside the powerful guilds of Christian tradesmen and artisans and without recourse to church charity, Jews were also very vulnerable. During times of crisis — war, famine, plague — violent antisemitic attacks would spike. Some of the worst pogroms of the Middle Ages occurred during the wartime upheaval of the First Crusade and in response to the Black Death (which allegedly affected Jews less, ostensibly due to ghetto quarantines or ritual washing). Though certain individual Jews could, during good times, reach positions of limited power and influence — the so-called “court Jews” — the first sign of crisis would elicit scapegoating by the ruling elite and attacks by the peasant masses.

While “many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated nonwhite, or otherwise ‘at the bottom,’” as left activist April Rosenblum wrote in “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” her influential 2007 survey of antisemitism, “the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target for peoples’ rage.”

And so, by the time that the bourgeoisie began to emerge as Europe’s ruling class in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the practice of scapegoating Jews for social and agricultural crises was already long established. It would not only be easy for capitalists to blame Jews for that new calamity of the era — the financial crisis — but in fact necessary, given urban workers’ greater capacity for revolt than the peasant masses.

“The Socialism of Fools”

Europe’s liberal revolutions did away with or severely weakened many fixtures of religious, feudal society: the political power of the Church, the guilds, the charitable obligations of the poor laws. But the Emancipated Jew — newly freed to live and work among Christians — was no less vulnerable to state-sponsored violence than the Court Jew.

The violent decades of capitalist expansion saw some of history’s most infamous pogroms, from the Dreyfus Affair in France to the Kishinev Pogrom in Russia. Racial pseudoscience offered a new way to ostracize the Jew — and the era’s oppressive industrialists stoked mass fury against Jews to guard against social revolution.

Right-wing elites in Russia eagerly promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to ensure that, as the writer Aurora Levins Morales writes, “peasants who go on pogrom against their Jewish neighbors won’t make it to the nobleman’s palace to burn him out and seize the fields.”

Socialists of the day understood the danger of working-class antisemitism: it was the German Social Democrats who circulated the saying that “antisemitism is the socialism of fools.” Yet Jew hatred would prove a durable weapon for the capitalist class, deployed as predictably as the state police during times of trouble. It was no coincidence that one of Russia’s deadliest pogroms — which killed 100 Jews in Kiev in 1905 — took place amid an empire-wide social revolution, in which the reactionary elite was desperate to prove that “all Russia’s troubles stemmed from the machinations of the Jews and socialists.” When nationalism and imperialism were added to the mix, antisemitism reached new heights of murderous capacity, with the Holocaust — perpetrated not only by the Nazis but conservative regimes across Europe — as its horrific zenith.

Crossing over the Atlantic Ocean, antisemitism would continue to fester in the United States. In response to the arrival of large numbers of working-class Jewish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, industrialist Henry Ford became one of the country’s leading anti-Jewish propagandists. From the pages of his personal newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, Ford — by 1920, the richest man in America — published a series of conspiracies that were later separately printed as “The International Jew.” Ford’s articles blamed the ills of capitalism on Jews (“Jewish Power and America’s Money Famine,” “How Jews Gained American Liquor Control”) while seeking to stoke an alliance between Christian workers and their anti-Bolshevik bosses (“Jewish Hot-Beds of Bolshevism in the U.S.”).

Then and now, wealthy, right-wing elites — organized in groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the anticommunist John Birch Society, whose members included oil tycoon H.L. Hunt and industrialist Fred Koch — have been the main drivers of antisemitism. The targeting of Jewish leftists, in order to divide and weaken the working class, was a central feature of the Palmer and McCarthy Red Scares, sometimes called America’s pogroms. When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953, the message was the same as the Pittsburgh shooter’s: this is what happens to Jews who don’t keep their heads down and toe the line.

But the US working class has not been immune from antisemitism, either. Propaganda from the likes of Ford, Catholic radio host Charles Coughlin, and their successors found an audience from white, Christian workers who blamed their deteriorating position on “racial mixing” and the liberalization of social norms. Black workers have also at times been seduced by the siren song of Jew hatred. In his 1967 essay, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,” James Baldwin wrote that he grew up hating Jews in 1930s Harlem, because they were — just like in Europe — the proximate, visible face of capitalism: landlords who didn’t maintain apartments, grocers who collected debts, butchers who overcharged for the worst cuts of meat. “Not all of these white people were cruel,” Baldwin wrote. “But all of them were exploiting us, and that was why we hated them.”

Fighting Antisemitism Through Socialism

The foul stench of antisemitism lingers in the air of capitalist society because it is cruelly rational: as long as there are capitalists, they will need groups to blame for their oppression. The only way to defeat antisemitism, then, is to win socialism.

Of course, antisemitism was also present in Communist societies, on both the official and popular levels. But this was not the result of too much socialism, but too little. By the 1930s soviet democracy was dead, and the institutional power and wealth of the pre-Communist ruling class had been replaced not by common ownership but by the party elite. Unwilling to fully democratize politics and the economy, the apparatchiks of the USSR and its Eastern Bloc satellites fanned the flames of antisemitism in a bid to give the people someone else to blame for state’s socialism’s failed promises. In Poland, for example — which in the 1950s still boasted an influential community of Jewish socialist intellectuals, such as the Marxist economist Michał Kalecki — the party-state responded to mass protests in 1968 with a campaign of antisemitic persecution and expulsion.

But the democratic socialism that we are fighting for is not about merely swapping one class of antisemites with another. It’s about doing away entirely with a ruling class — by democratizing politics, society, and economy. Socialism may not mean the end of individual prejudice (though it is a start), but by removing the material basis for antisemitism, it will make it easier to wipe out interpersonal bigotry as well.

There is surely important work to be done in fighting antisemitism through education, awareness, and solidarity-building. The specific threat of white-nationalist organizations remains the paramount one. But hate groups gain members, and ordinary people partake in hateful acts, not in a vacuum, but in a society that offers little to the have-nots beyond rage. And in the United States, that rage is primed to be directed against Jews.

Organizing for socialism — for a better, more just society — offers us a way out of this bind. For, ultimately, in any society in which the few rule over the many, racist and antisemitic victim-blaming will thrive. Only in an egalitarian world — the world of socialism — can we finally bury the scourge of antisemitism.