Most European and North American countries define antisemitism in a strange way, conflating criticism of a state with criticism of a people. Perhaps most strange is that antisemitism needs to be codified by statute—there is no other form of racism or bigotry defined the same way, linked to the formation of a single state, or requiring law makers to enforce not only its prohibition but its definition.
According to the now widely-adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, it is racist to declare Israel as racist; it is racist to single Israel out for criticism, and it is racist to compare Israel’s actions, no matter their character, to those of Nazis. Even the staunchest opponents of antisemitism should admit this position is gratuitously political.
It’s been over a century since antisemitism became rooted in the modern politics of electoral parties, human rights discourse, and state formation. The fin-de-siecle trial of a Franco-Jewish army officer for treason, and the subsequent pogroms in French cities, may seem a bare footnote compared to organized Tsarist state violence against Jews and the Nazi Judeocide; still, it was significant insofar as it was the first time antisemitism became an explicitly political movement. That is, the Dreyfus Trial was the first time antisemitism—as a cause—was championed first by a populist Right and then, soon after, confronted by an emergent populist Left.
As the writer and French socialite, Baroness Steinheil, wrote in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Trial, the cause of Dreyfus “is no longer between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, but between the Republic and enemies of the Republic, between radicals and socialists on one hand, Royalists and ‘anti-Semites’ on the other.” The historian, Stephen Wilson, writes of the trial that it was at this moment that Dreyfus “moved completely into mythology.” By this, Wilson meant that the facts of the case and details of Dreyfus’s life were subsumed by their abstraction into political discourse. On the Right, the neo-fascist Action Francaise saw Dreyfus and his supporters as a threat to the purity of the French nation. For the left, which included much of the intelligentsia, nascent human rights groups, and most importantly, burgeoning socialist parties, the defense of Dreyfus was a defense of the ideals of liberal democracy—whether Dreyfus supported such ideals himself, or not.
While anti-Jewish bigotry and violence preceded Dreyfus by at least a millennium or two, it is important to acknowledge how the Dreyfus Trial, in Hannah Arendt’s words, became the “episode […] offering a foreglow of the Twentieth Century.” It is not merely that Dreyfus functioned as a scapegoat for a nation experiencing the many crises of modernity. Social forces with little else in common formed a politics around his guilt—or his innocence. Economic nationalists, conservative Catholics, and militarists did not share much in common; it was the trial and the figure of Jewish treason that united them.
In many ways, the calamity of the Holocaust overshadows the Dreyfus era and makes anti-Jewish bigotry appear something both outside of politics and even outside of the normal functioning of the world. The Dreyfus Trial appears by comparison rather quotidian. In that sense, the politics it represents is far more relevant to our own epoch than the cataclysm it precedes. Despite many declarations that “antisemitism is over” in the West, antisemitism has not left the political arena. Indeed, figurative representations of Jews are as crucial to political discourse as ever, even if in ways that crucially break with discourses of the early Twentieth Century.
As Antony Lerman charts in his recent book, Whatever Happened to Antisemitism?, the politics of antisemitism still play a major role in European affairs, where they decide elections, shape political coalitions, and arrange narratives by which states align their interests. Most recently, as Lerman documents, antisemitism played a leading role in defeating perhaps the most progressive politician and political movement to come within a hair’s breadth of leading a major European country in over half a century.
By Lerman’s own telling, this “new antisemitism” is merely a utilitarian narrative, intended to smear a left-wing candidate. Yet, the narrative against Jeremy Corbyn is not merely against the left. It constructed a new politics of Jewish interest, re-aligning a British state around a definition of Jewish identity. This “mythologization” of a new Jew—against democracy, clannishly mobilized to defend Israel, and focused on the persecution of its enemies—is materially our new Shylock bent on his pound of flesh. It is an image mobilized by the very state that declares it defends him.
As some may remember, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party in an activist upsurge, before helping to achieve what Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch described as Labour’s “largest increase in its vote in any general election since 1945.” While Corbyn had been a left-wing Labour Party MP for many years, the movement that placed him at its head was a bottom-up, grassroots attempt to end both the rightward turn of British political life since Thatcher and the neoliberal hollowing out of “New Labour” since the early 1990s. It was the greatest political challenge to ruling class orthodoxy since the 1970s.
While Corbyn’s opposition to the politics of austerity and privatization earned him the ire of both the press and the political establishment, the charge that he was an antisemite is ultimately what garnered the most media attention and, as Lerman lays out, cost him not only his leadership but the election. The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews accused Corbyn of “declaring war on Jews.” Three Jewish newspapers in the UK ran the same headline, claiming Corbyn was an “existential threat” to Jewish people. Tory leader James Cleverly threatened that “Jews would leave England” if Corbyn won, although in retrospect that was perhaps Cleverly’s own wishful thinking. The storm around Corbyn seemed so fierce that most Britons believed over one-third of the Labour Party had been brought up on charges of antisemitism—an inflation by order of three thousand times the actual number of charges. I remember a story in the U.S. Forward in which a British Jew related that seeing Corbyn riding the train occasioned her to think about what her grandparents would do if they confronted Hitler.
Yet, as several studies and articles have made clear, the “propaganda campaign” against Corbyn and Momentum went far beyond the Jewish press to include nearly every press outlet in the U.K. This encompassed everything from the liberal Guardian to the centrist BBC, to say nothing of the right-wing, Murdoch-owned channels and papers. The “process of vilification” included “major inaccuracies and fabrications” at all levels of coverage, obscuring the ironic fact that the Labour Party, and Momentum especially, was actually less antisemitic on average than the whole of British society, and certainly a great deal less antisemitic than the Tories. Corbyn’s major sin—beyond failing to condemn an antisemitic mural fast enough—seems to have been his support of Palestinian liberation and his hostility to the Israeli state. And while this may explain some Jewish denunciation of Corbyn, historian Deborah Lipstadt’s comparison of Corbyn to Trump, and the Forward’s comparison to Hitler, seemed so outlandish it staggers reason. One would think Momentum had promoted Oswald Mosley, rather than an activist-turned-politician who fought fascists in London’s East End in the 1970s, attended seders with progressive Jews, had good relationships with the Jewish community in his district, and had never been known to utter a single antisemitic sentiment.