These are times of both great opportunity and great danger, in which the morbid symptoms of far right reaction, climate catastrophe, and economic crisis grow stronger across the globe.1This article is based on a paper delivered at the Historical Materialism conference in November 2019 on a panel organised by Salvage. Simultaneously, the Left—both revolutionary and social democratic—has entered a period of recomposition, spurred on by important moments of mass mobilizations in the streets as well as at the ballot box (unfortunately much less so in the workplace) throughout the last decade.
Social movements, left-wing electoral projects, and the return of class politics into mainstream debate are all important and positive developments for a Left that has been used to the isolation of defeat for too long. While the depth of the 40-year-long, historic downturn in struggle has meant that the process of rebuilding a combative, well rooted, and effectively organized socialist movement is a slow and difficult process, it is nonetheless taking place.
The place of antiSemitism within this process is as complicated as it is worrying. In recent years we have seen a growth of violent far right attacks on Jewish communities, most shockingly captured by weaponized assaults on Jewish establishments, as well as a general rise in indicators of antiSemitism across much of the West. Simultaneously, antiSemitic figures have risen to power—for example, in Hungary—or developed close relations with representatives of the more traditional Right, as is the case in both the US and the UK. Seeing Boris Johnson and Donald Trump cozying up to Steve Bannon while normalizing relations with Victor Orban, or seeing Theresa May erect an actual statue to the raving antiSemite and Nazi sympathizer, Nancy Astor, are extremely disturbing signs indeed.
This growth of antiSemitic violence and antiSemitic sentiment is not taking place in a vacuum. It emerges out of a long-term process of normalization of the far right by bourgeois parties and the press, constructed primarily around xenophobic, antiBlack, and Islamophobic racisms, which have been at the heart of the last three decades’ so-called wars on drugs, terror, and immigration. While far right leaders across Europe copied French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, donned suits, presented themselves as “respectable” and representative of an imagined “silent majority,” mainstream media outlets, politicians, and commentators were more than happy to facilitate their rise—perhaps in the hope that it would divert attempts to reconstitute progressive mass resistance to neoliberal rule.
Behind the suits, and given confidence by their leaders’ appearances on talk shows and in electoral debates as well as by their favorable electoral results, the far right remobilized on the streets throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. With them, a host of other reactionary positions—ranging from opposition to abortion and same-sex marriages to promoting antiSemitism—gained a new lease of life. They have increasingly moved from the periphery to the center as mainstream bourgeois parties outbid one another to capture the far right’s electoral base. It then becomes easy for the far right to capitalize on this process further given, in the words of Jean-Marie Le Pen, “voters prefer the original to the copy.”
However, the mainstream discourse around antiSemitism has refused to connect it to the general rise of far right activism and racism across the board. Instead, it has repeatedly identified the Left, Muslims, anti-imperialist politics, and particularly Palestine solidarity activism as the sources of growing antiSemitism—despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Worse, it has repeatedly identified the very same actors who are normalizing the far right and its antiSemitism as protectors of the Jewish people against the dangers of a rising Left, often under the pretense that the Trumps or Johnsons of this world are “friends of Israel.”
The celebration of Johnson’s election by the Board of Deputies (BoD) or Trump’s election by both the then-president of the BoD, Jonathan Arkush, and the American Jewish Committee were particularly striking examples of this trend. The fact that collapsing Jews everywhere and Israel into one and the same category, an ideological and rhetorical move on which these seemingly contradictory positions rest, is itself deeply antiSemitic, does not seem to trouble commentators very much.
A New Situation
The situation we find ourselves in, then, is highly contradictory. On the one hand, a growing far right is increasingly launching antiSemitic attacks, while more mainstream right-wing political parties are normalizing them. Both justify their antiSemitism through proIsrael political stances. On the other hand, public discourse identifies these same forces as protectors of the Jews against the dangerous growth of the Left, Muslim populations in the West, and Palestine solidarity activism. I have written about these issues in greater detail elsewhere.2See Sai Englert, “Recentering the State: A Response to Barnaby Raine on Anti-Semitism,” Salvage, December 17, 2019; and Englert, “Judaism, Zionism, and the Nazi Genocide,” Historical Materialism 26, no. 2 (July 2018): 149–77.
The general thrust of my argument has been that the position of Jews in the West has changed drastically in the aftermath of the Holocaust. This is the case in material terms: Jewish communities in Europe and North America are no longer overwhelmingly located in lower social-economic strata, working in blue collar jobs or as petty traders; rather, they are typically in upwardly mobile positions.
Indeed, a number of political and social factors have intersected to turn Jews—in the dominant narrative of European ruling classes—from the dangerous gravediggers of European civilization, as either Bolshevik internationalists or international financiers, into the key defenders of a newly invented Judeo-Christian civilization. The argument I made was that this change occurred in response to a number of factors in the 1950s and 1960s: decolonization across the Global South, the growth of postcolonial working classes in the metropolis, and the increasing importance of Israel in protecting and imposing Western interests in the Middle East.
In response to these developments, as Enzo Traverso has shown, European states invented for themselves an antiracist history, in which opposition to Nazism and its genocide came to play a central role.3Enzo Traverso, The End of Jewish Modernity (London: Pluto Press, 2016). Norman Finkelstein, Knowing too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End (New York: OR Books, 2012). This narrative simultaneously whitewashed the considerable levels of support Hitler received from European and North American ruling classes, while also shifting attention away from their crimes across the Global South. Far from being the historical agents and abettors of the persecution of the Jews, these states now presented themselves as their defenders in the name of a new Judeo-Christian civilization.
Simultaneously, Western states increasingly identified Jewish communities at home with Israel abroad, as their defenders against the barbarians at the gates—peoples across the world and within the metropolis demanding redress for colonial violence and dispossession as well as racism and exploitation. This move was both deeply antiSemitic, as it collapsed Jews everywhere and Israel’s settler colonial project into one and the same entity, as well as dangerous, given that it constructed Jews as a shield behind which to hide when faced with the demands of other racialized populations.
As Norman Finkelstein has very convincingly argued, this change in attitude was particularly attractive to the Jewish bourgeoisie, despite the risks it entailed for the vast majority of Jews. Indeed, the former had been barred from full integration in Western ruling classes because of prevalent antiSemitism.4Norman Finkelstein, Knowing too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End (New York: OR Books, 2012). Now, support for Zionism offered them a way in. Describing the situation in the US, Finkelstein shows that it is because they were attempting to demonstrate themselves to be good and loyal Americans that the leadership of US Jewish communities embraced Zionism in the aftermath of the 1967 war, when Israel fully entered the US sphere of influence.
Since then, Jews have been constructed as the guardians of Western civilization, through a sanitized history of the Holocaust and an imposed identification with Zionism in the Middle East, and therefore integrated in the Judeo-Christian family. It is an integration that remains highly conditional on loyalty to the new paradigm, as antiZionist Jews quickly discover when they find themselves stripped of their Jewishness by their opponents because of their political stance. In addition, the new paradigm was constructed very much in opposition to other racialized groups—Palestinians, Muslims, Black people, and migrants—who remained the enemies of capital and its states. Barbarians are at the gates, “hating us for our freedoms.”
The integration of Jews is then conditional and dangerous, highly visible and highly vulnerable to changes in policy. It is a sort of racialization through deracialization, a process Patrick Wolfe has described in relation to those settler colonial states where settlers found themselves outnumbered by those they aimed to rule.5Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (New York: Verso Press, 2016). They therefore constructed a growing number of racial categories to divide both Indigenous and enslaved populations through different legal orders and different material statuses. They also identified certain groups as white and integrated them—unequally and conditionally—into the dominant population. This approach is a useful way to think about how Jews have been positioned in the West, in relation to both other racialized groups and to whiteness in the last sixty years.
Grasping this change can also be helped by a shift in our analytical focus. Much of the historical analyses of antiSemitism are centered on the Jewish communities of Eastern and Central Europe, and their diaspora across the Western world. This is for good reason, given the specific history of Ashkenazi Jewish communities leading up to and during the Holocaust. However, the history of Jewish communities in colonial contexts outside of Europe also has a lot to tell us about how to understand contemporary antiSemitism, the position of Jewish communities in the West today, and their weaponization by the state.
North African (and particularly Algerian) Jews under French colonization can serve as an important example of the processes discussed above. In this context Jews were “lifted up” into French civilization in direct opposition to the majority of Indigenous Muslim populations. This process made them vanguards of the Republic within North African society while at the same time making them dependent on the colonial state for both access to their new material advantages as well as for protection from those who were from then on constructed as their eternal enemies. This position however proved to be extremely precarious and led in the long run to the quasi-disappearance of North African Jewry. Much like Jews today, they were lifted out of their previous matrix of oppression and recast into a new, highly visible, and precarious one.
Crémieux Against Indigeneity
The French state, following its original invasion of Algeria in 1832, continued its colonization throughout the nineteenth century and looked to establish a stable settler population in the land that would rule over its inhabitants and oversee the development of cash crop production based on cheap Indigenous labor. In the process, it was confronted by the challenge of ruling a large and rebellious native population. It therefore moved—as many other settler states in similar situations (not least the Israeli state in Palestine) had done before and have done since—to segment and segregate. It did so along ethnic, religious, and geographical lines by, for example, codifying and hardening the divisions between Arab and Amazigh identities through official colonial censuses.
A critical aspect of this process focused on the Jewish populations of Algeria and the Maghreb more generally. These processes have been discussed in depth in a number of important books, including Benjamin Stora’s Les Trois Éxiles, the collection of essays, Les Juifs d’Algérie, and Massoud Hayoun’s excellent When We Were Arabs in which the author rediscovers the history of his Egyptian and Tunisian Jewish grandparents.6Benjamin Stora, Les Trois Exils Juifs d’Algérie (Paris: Stock, 2006); Joëlle Allouche-Benayoun et Geneviève Dermenjian, Les Juifs d’Algérie (Aix-en-Provence: Press Universitaires de Provence, 2015); Massoud Hayoun, When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History (New York: New Press, 2019).
In 1870, France simultaneously—and this temporal aspect is important—decreed that Jewish Algerians would henceforth become French citizens, while Muslims would be denied the same right despite Algeria’s official status as a fully fledged French department. It is worth noting, in the context of current assaults by the French state on the political and religious rights of its Muslim citizens, that the Republic’s sacrosanct laïcité was never applied in Algeria. There, the Republic needed to maintain a strict state policy of religious rights and citizenship—or lack thereof.
While the Crémieux Decree—the name of the decree granting Algerian Jews French citizenship—is often discussed, less attention is given to the simultaneous nature of the exclusion of Algerian Muslims from the Republic’s political and social rights. Yet this was a crucial aspect of its colonial rule. Indeed, although the famous “Indigeneity code” emerged five years later to codify French rule over the Algerian majority, it was through the granting of French citizenship to the Jews that majority (Muslim) exclusion was originally institutionalized. The two populations were respectively included and excluded in opposition to one another, constructing the status of one as dependent on the (mis)fortunes of the other.
This approach by the French state initiated a double process. On the one hand, it opened the door for the Jewish communities of Algeria to better educational and professional opportunities. Many of them were, for example, integrated into the colonial public service. The Republic and its promise of equal citizenship was highly attractive to a community that had previously held an unequal minority status and a fervent Francophilia developed among many French Jews who, much like Christian populations in other parts of the French Empire’s Muslim majority colonies, adopted French names, lifestyles, and cultural references.
On the other hand, this “elevation” out of oppression was performed through a rejection of Indigenous life—not only a cultural rejection but also a legal and political one. For example, to enjoy their new status, Jews had to reject their religious courts and submit to the civil code of the Republic. Their status as citizens of France also meant that they turned overwhelmingly to French political parties and abandoned the burgeoning nationalist resistance movements, with terrible consequences in the long run.
An Always Conditional Status
The “elevation” of Algerian Jews was presented and celebrated by the French as proof of both the effectiveness of the so-called “mission civilisatrice” and the greater backwardness of Muslims who had not reached the levels of advancement of their Jewish counterparts. The “protection” of Algerian Jews against the Muslim majority also became mobilized as a justification for the continued French presence.
It is equally important to note that this process was carried out by a highly antiSemitic French state. Indeed, the multiplication of antiSemitic parties and policies would steadily grow both amongst settlers and in the metropolis, leading twenty years later to the eruption of the Dreyfus affair. The anti-Semitism of the settlers, who considered the inclusion of Jews into the Republic a grave threat to the purity of the French population, was rife. Many prominent anti-Dreyfusard activists would emerge from their ranks, such as Max Régis, or would build up their political base among them. The most famous of those was Édouard Drumont, author of La France Juive (Jewish France) and editor of the antiSemitic newspaper La Libre Parole (Free Speech). He was elected, with the support of Régis, to the French Assembly, representing Algiers. Both men were leading activists of the AntiSemitic League.
France could simultaneously oppress Jews in the metropolis while “freeing” them in Algeria. This should alert us to the fact that far from liberating Algeria’s Jews, Crémieux and the subsequent integration of Algerian Jews in the administrative and economic life of the settlement in fact remodelled their racialization. They were to be used as both a stick against the Algerian Muslims and a shield behind which to hide the motivations for the violence and oppression of the French colonial state.
Indeed, this position, although celebrated by the secular leadership of Algerian Jews (often linked to proFrench merchants), in reality endangered the majority of their coreligionists. This was so not only because it put them in the line of fire as potentially vulnerable representatives of France when the Muslim majority in Algeria rebelled (as happened at different points in the course of the struggle for Algerian liberation) but also because it made Algerian Jews highly dependent on an antiSemitic state, which could change its mind at any time, for their protection and security. The increasingly shrill antiSemitic demands and mobilizations by settlers were a constant reminder of the precarity of this integration and tended to lead, on the part of Algerian Jews, to greater hopes for protection by the state rather than a full rejection of it and of the settlers alike.
Their worst fears were realized when the collaborationist Maréchal Petain came to power during the Second World War and, to widespread popular settler acclaim, revoked Algerian Jews’ French citizenship between 1940 and 1943. What is more, when De Gaulle’s free France seized Algeria from Vichy France, it hesitated to reinstate it. This traumatic experience demonstrates well the danger and fragility of the strategy—often pursued by the elites of oppressed group—of cozying up to the very state that oppresses them, in the hope of achieving “integration.” This integration into, and subsequent rejection by, France was described as the Algerian Jews’ first and second exile by the historian Benjamin Stora (whose family experienced both these historical transformations): first “exiled” from being Algerian and second from being French citizens. The third exile—out of Algeria—was yet to come.
Decolonization and Exile
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the struggle for Algerian independence gained steam. After demonstrators who celebrated the end of the war by brandishing the Algerian flag were shot in Sétif, riots broke out across the region, to which the settlers and the army responded by carrying out widespread massacres.
The message was clear: The pre-war hopes of Algerian elites that political equality was possible within the confines of the Republic would lead nowhere, and French wartime promises of greater freedom as a sign of gratitude for Algerian participation in the war effort were a lie. Both in Algeria and in the metropolis a number of organizations emerged out of this crisis and intensified their struggle—political, industrial, and military—for independence, culminating in the Algerian revolution (1954–1962) and liberation.
In the process, different visions of what a free Algeria should look like emerged and Algeria’s Jewish communities found themselves in a bind: abandon France and its promise of equality in order to fight for the freedom of the nation, with the risk of failure and rejection; support France and risk being put in the firing line of the nationalists; or remain neutral and wait to see who would gain the upper hand. Of course, individuals took part in in a wide variety of ways. Many Jewish activists joined the Communist Party or supported the National Liberation Front (FLN), but the overwhelming majority chose to remain neutral, on the sidelines of the growing national struggle.
In A Semite, Denis Guénoun tells the story of his family, Jewish Algerian Communists, who supported independence.7Denis Guénoun, A Semite: A Memoir of Algeria (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014). The failure of the Communist Party to do so until the very end of the war did not stop individual communists from playing an active part in the struggle both in Algeria and in France. The title of the book reflects Guénoun’s father’s desire to rebuild a unified Algerian identity, as Semites rather than as Muslims or Jews. However, the book also captures how the structures built by the French state generated a particular, almost inexorable, logic. The Guénouns lived among the French populations of Oran, studied and taught in their schools, and were detached from the daily lives of the Algerian majority. Their support for independence led to confrontations with their neighbors and coworkers and made them increasingly vulnerable to attacks by the settler-military, Organisation Armée Secrète. In the end they had to flee to France. The book powerfully captures how, even for those who supported the FLN and Algerian independence, the material structures imposed by the state made effective joint resistance difficult.
Early in the war of independence, the FLN published its famous Appeal of the FLN to Our Israelite Compatriots in which it called on Algerian Jews to join the struggle and break once and for all with the French state.8“Appeal of the FLN to our Israelite Compatriots,” in Stora, Les Trois Exil. While this call is often celebrated—and rightly so—as an attempt by the Algerian nationalists to break down the colonizers’ divide-and-rule strategies, the example of the Guénouns also sheds light on the material difficulties that the state’s approach to the Jewish populations put in the way of united struggles. It is not clear whether the FLN had, or could, develop more than a rhetorical appeal to Algerian Jews. As the war intensified and French violence escalated, the political space for such a strategy shrank. Algerian Jews’ passivity was often interpreted as collaboration and in a number of cases, they became the target of bloody attacks.
The break was never healed. And when the French finally left Algeria, almost all Algerian Jews left with them. The failure of communist and nationalist activists to win over Jewish Algerians to the project of building an independent Algerian state and to abandon their inclusion into the French Republic during the war of independence led to the effective destruction, through exile, of the Algerian Jewish community. It also contributed to the emergence of a limited vision of the identity of the newly independent state, something that remains a major issue today for Amazigh Algerians. The fate of the Algerian Jews should be a warning for the Left of what is at stake in fighting back against state strategies of divide and rule.
Some Concluding Thoughts
The history of Algerian Jews briefly sketched out here resonates strongly with tendencies in contemporary antiSemitism. Indeed, in much the same way, from the mid- to late-1960s (ironically as the war of independence was ending in Algeria and its Jewish populations arrived in France), the position of Jews in the West started shifting dramatically—away from that of outcasts, enemies of the state, fifth columnists, and either communist or bourgeois destroyers of the liberal order, and instead toward that of defenders of the West against the assaults of anticolonial movements abroad and antiracist campaigns at home.
Indeed, as discussed above, faced with growing demands for liberation and reparation by formerly colonized people across the Global South as well as by their descendants in the metropolis, Western states mobilized a very specific vision of Jewish populations as a shield behind which to hide their imperialist and racist policies. This vision rested on two pillars: support for Israel’s settler colonial project as an armed force against the rise of Arab nationalism and Global South militancy (not least that of the Palestinian people themselves), and a slanted official representation of the Holocaust in which the complicity and antiSemitism of Western states and capital were occluded. Jews became recast as the protectors of the gates to the West—both materially in the Middle East and ideologically at home.
This new state-led offer was highly attractive to elites within the Jewish community that could now aspire to forms of social mobility previously denied by antiSemitic structures, but it also recreated the two processes described in the Algerian case above. On the one hand, it constructed Jewish political life in opposition to other racialized groups. Official recognition of the Holocaust and support for Israel were used as a way to demonstrate European states’ antiracism against other communities and their demands for recognition and justice. Ilan Halevi, for example, describes in his L’Effet Mirroir how this twin approach was used, primarily by the US and Israel, during the World Conference against Racism in Durban to undermine and weaken demands for Palestinian liberation as well as for reparations for colonialism and slavery.9Ilan Halevi, L’Effet Mirroir: Islamophobie et Judéophobie (Paris: Éditions Syllepse, 2015). The issue of comparing the Holocaust to other genocides was also a central point of contention at the conference—and was eventually rejected.
In Western Europe, the populations targeted in this way were in large part Muslim, which further increased the appeal of presenting the Palestine question as one that pitted Muslims and Jews, rather than settlers and Indigenous people, against one another. Similarly, Jewish political aspirations for liberation were constructed as under threat by demands of colonized people, first and foremost the Palestinian people, because they were recast by Western states as being, always and necessarily, Zionist.
On the other hand, the rights and protection of Jewish communities were presented as depending on the same states that had, only a few decades ago, at best ignored and at worst participated in their elimination. The states which generations of Jewish working class and socialist militants had fought against and been targeted by, suddenly announced their commitment to Jewish liberation—as long as it would take place somewhere else.
This analysis sheds some light on a number of important aspects of the current situation:
- The fact that antiSemitism is ascribed continuously, and against all statistical and observable evidence, to the Left, the Palestine solidarity movement, and racialized communities—primarily Palestinians and Muslims.
- The ability of many contemporary anti-Semites to profess both a “love for Israel” and a hatred for Jewish people.
- The fact that the current paradigm is highly attractive to Jewish communal elites, who have found through it a way into the institutions of Western ruling classes that were previously barred to them by the latter’s antiSemitism.
This approach, while highlighting some historical parallels to the current weaponization of antiSemitism against the Left, other racialized groups, and the struggle for Palestinian liberation, also has strategic implications for antiracist activists today.
In the face of an increasingly confident Right, aided and abetted by politicians and mainstream media outlets, the Left needs to identify structural forms of oppression and move away from the contemporary tendency to focus instead on individual cases and experiences. It needs to find ways to connect different specific struggles on the basis of shared dangers and enemies, and mobilize them behind mass, collective resistance against the structures, groups, and states that oppress them. This must go beyond slogans and identify the specific material barriers constructed by capital and states to separate and pit different communities against each other.
Notes & References
- This article is based on a paper delivered at the Historical Materialism conference in November 2019 on a panel organised by Salvage.
- See Sai Englert, “Recentering the State: A Response to Barnaby Raine on Anti-Semitism,” Salvage, December 17, 2019; and Englert, “Judaism, Zionism, and the Nazi Genocide,” Historical Materialism 26, no. 2 (July 2018): 149–77.
- Enzo Traverso, The End of Jewish Modernity (London: Pluto Press, 2016).
- Norman Finkelstein, Knowing too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End (New York: OR Books, 2012).
- Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (New York: Verso Press, 2016).
- Benjamin Stora, Les Trois Exils Juifs d’Algérie (Paris: Stock, 2006); Joëlle Allouche-Benayoun et Geneviève Dermenjian, Les Juifs d’Algérie (Aix-en-Provence: Press Universitaires de Provence, 2015); Massoud Hayoun, When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History (New York: New Press, 2019).
- Denis Guénoun, A Semite: A Memoir of Algeria (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
- “Appeal of the FLN to our Israelite Compatriots,” in Stora, Les Trois Exil.
- Ilan Halevi, L’Effet Mirroir: Islamophobie et Judéophobie (Paris: Éditions Syllepse, 2015).