How the Left Turned Against the Jews

Anti-Semitism has never been confined to the Right. Its latest manifestation is the left-wing campaign to undermine Israel

Nick Cohen

In Weimar Germany, riddled with resentment after defeat in World War I and the national catastrophe of the Treaty of Versailles, demagogues knew that they could win the attention of the mob by palming the race card from the bottom of the deck.

“You cry out against Jewish capital, gentlemen?” cried one. “You are against Jewish capital and want to eliminate the stock manipulators. Rightly so. Trample the Jewish capitalists under foot, hang them from the street lamps, stamp them out.”

Ruth Fischer sounded like a Nazi. She used the same hate-filled language. She wanted to murder Jews. But Hitler would never have accepted her. Fischer was a leader of the German Communist Party. She made her small differences of opinion with the Nazis clear when she went on to say that her audience should not just trample Jewish capitalists to death, but all capitalists.

Unconcerned by the contradiction, Hitler said the Jews were at once a “Judaeo-Bolshevik” conspiracy and a capitalist conspiracy. In Fischer’s case, he was half right. The rabble-rouser who wanted to hang Jewish capitalists was a Jewish Communist, the sister of Hanns Eisler, who wrote music for some of Brecht’s early plays. Eisler and Brecht fled the Nazis in 1933. A sense of self-preservation triumphed over ideology, and they found permanent sanctuary in America rather than in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Hanns could not have been surprised when the House Committee on Un-American Activities demanded his deportation. He was a prominent Communist composer who worked for Hollywood, which the American Right considered a nest of reds. Eisler was perhaps more surprised to discover that his own sister Ruth was a witness for the prosecution when the McCarthyites arraigned him in 1947. Supporters of Stalin had denounced her as a “Left oppositionist” Trotskyist. She responded by not only going over to the “capitalist camp” but by providing evidence against Hanns, and against a second brother, Gerhart, who was a leading agent in the Comintern. 

Political and personal betrayals filled her life. But as Colin Shindler shows in his Israel and the European Left (Continuum, £17.99), her embrace of anti-Semitism would have struck her fellow Communists as no betrayal at all.

Before I go further, I should say that Shindler’s book is superb: a well-written and meticulously researched history of the horrors and ironies of the last 100 years. He shows how screaming stereotypes and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories developed by Marxists — not by fascists or Islamists or Catholic and Orthodox nationalists, but by the Left — have survived while all around has changed.

Given the cramped nature of British debate, I doubt if it will be widely reviewed. The right-wing press won’t like it because it is not a conventional denunciation of the Left. Shindler is a properly impartial historian, but when his beliefs show through he reveals himself to be a social democrat rather than an Israel-firster or man of the Right. The left-wing press won’t like it for the same reason Caliban did not like the sight of his face in the mirror. Beyond the ideological divide lies the almost taboo nature of Shindler’s subject. Conventional wisdom does not regard Communism with the same abhorrence as fascism, even though if you want to be an accountant about it and add up the skulls of the dead, you will find that the Communists murdered many more people than the fascists did, began murdering before fascists came to power and carried on murdering after the fascists had gone. Yet few can bring themselves to see fascism and Communism as moral equivalents. Even Robert Conquest, who mapped the crimes of Stalin, and had been mocked by the know-nothing Left of his day as a Cold War fantasist, said he thought the Nazis were worse than the Communists. He couldn’t explain why, they just felt worse.

A part of the explanation for the double standard is that the allies overthrew the Nazis in 1945 and opened their archives. The democratic world could read what they had done. China’s archives on Mao, the greatest criminal of the 20th century, remain closed. Perhaps historians will never read them in full. More important than the scarcity of source material is the woozy feeling that Communism’s aims — equality, universal fraternity — were noble, whereas not even Germans and Italians can now find reasons to applaud racist theories of German or Italian domination.

Shindler’s story of the racism of the anti-racists, of how the far Left turned on Europe’s most persecuted minority, does not fit into the preconceived notion that, say what you like about it, Communism was an emancipatory creed. Because his book is disconcerting, I doubt if centrist broadcasters, for whom conventional wisdom is the only wisdom, will review Shindler either. All the more reason, of course, for you to read him. If he has not produced a           secret history, then it is a history of a secret in plain view; an account of facts that are available but not discussed. After I interviewed him at Jewish Book Week, members of the audience said they had never before heard anyone examine the racist strain in left-wing  thinking, even though it was there from the beginning.

The movements for Jewish self-determination and Russian Communism were twins separated at birth. The First Zionist conference met on August 27, 1897, to discuss the escape from anti-Semitic Europe to Palestine. The General Jewish Labour Bund held its first conference in Vilnius on October 7, 1897, to organise the Russian Empire’s Jews in a united socialist party. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, from which the Bolsheviks split, held its first conference in March 1898. Naturally, the Bund sent delegates. For liberal and left-wing Europeans of the late 19th century, no regime was more repellent than Tsarist autocracy, and nothing better symbolised its reactionary nature than its anti-Semitic pogroms. Jews responded to the terror by keeping their Jewish identity and joining Jewish socialist movements, such as the Bund, or by becoming entirely assimilated Communists, as Trotsky and many others did.

The coincidences of history do not end there. On November 2, 1917, Arthur Balfour sent his declaration to Baron Rothschild that the British Empire would allow the Jewish people to find a home in Palestine “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”. On November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace.

The Jews and the Left were entwined. Many who went to Palestine were socialists determined that the New Jerusalem should be in Jerusalem. Others saw a New Jerusalem rising in Moscow. They could never get on for theoretical and practical reasons. The theory sounded plausible; indeed, for all the crimes the Left has committed, I still half believe it myself. To revolutionaries, Jewish self-determination was a distraction from universal liberation. Anti-Semitism was purely a result of “medieval” prejudices that would wither away as humanity progressed, Lenin said. The Enlightenment had given the Jews political freedom and an “undeniable progressive assimilation with the surrounding population”. Come Communism, Judaism like all national, class and religious differences would vanish.

As so often the theory was one thing and the practice another. The belief that Communism was better than Nazism stops us seeing that the Bolshevik Revolution was an insane idea from its inception. A “vanguard” party, composed of a tiny band of professional revolutionaries, could hold on to power only by terrorising the subject population. The Bolsheviks had to crush independent Jewish organisations, as they had to crush all other independent organisations. Yet even before the Bolsheviks produced a left-wing variant of the Nazi conspiracy theory, the Jews were a special case in the old Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks recognised other minorities as minorities with homelands. They never said that there should be a Jewish homeland in their empire. Socialist Zionism was a particular threat to the new regime. If Jews succeeded in building a socialist state in Israel, it would be a rival. Lenin set a loyalty test. Before he came to power, he purged the Communist movement of supporters of the Bund. The only Jews he permitted to remain were Jews who were so thoroughly assimilated that they were barely Jews at all.

Unlike Lenin, Stalin was an anti-Semite and understood the uses of irrational hatred. His crimes took the forms of the sins of omission and commission. The omission was not to see Nazism for what it was, and ally with it in the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939. It remains one of the most hypocritical and stupid acts in the annals of diplomacy, where examples of hypocrisy and stupidity are not hard to find. Throughout the 1930s Communist writers, poets and propagandists had denounced fascism and urged a popular front against the Hitlerian menace. Then in August 1939 Stalin stood on his head and announced a Soviet reconciliation with Nazi Germany so they might partition Poland between them. Stalin believed in Hitler. Solzhenitsyn speculated in The First Circle that Hitler was the only man he ever really trusted. The complete surprise Hitler achieved when he invaded an unprepared Soviet Union in 1941 suggests that Solzhenitsyn was right. By signing the pact, the Soviet Union agreed to hand over the Jews of western Poland to the Nazis. Although conventional historians lazily say that the pact shocked a generation of leftists, Shindler points out that membership of the British Communist Party actually rose after the tyrants had cut a deal, and hardly anyone worried about the fate of Polish Jewry. Those who had shouted loudest about the dangers of fascism from 1933 to 1938 were as willing as Chamberlain and Halifax to appease it in 1939.

Leftists of the 1968 generation tried to recover something from the disgrace of Marxism-Leninism by arguing that if only Trotsky had succeeded Lenin then all would have been well. Trotsky, however, argued from exile that the war between Nazi Germany and Britain and France was an imperialist conflict. Marxists should not take sides, but wait for the revolutionary opportunities that would follow the exhaustion of the warring powers. Shindler illustrates the mood far beyond the Communist Party by digging up the writings of Tony Cliff, the cultish founder of the Socialist Workers Party, the most malign force in British left-wing politics. “Tony Cliff” was the suitably proletarian nom de guerre of Ygael Gluckstein, who was born in Palestine. In our day, the SWP accuses virtually everyone of being a fascist, most notably Israelis and their friends abroad. Yet when he confronted actual fascists in the form of Nazi armies, Gluckstein would not fight them. If Rommel had broken through the British lines at El Alamein, the Nazis would have killed every Jew in Palestine, including Gluckstein. Instead of defending them and himself, he issued appeals to Jewish students not to fight Hitler that were so insistent the British authorities interned him alongside members of the Stern gang in Acre prison. The Trotskyist thought he could secure a revolution and throw out the British imperialists by letting the Nazis win. Stern and his associates thought they could create a Jewish state by attacking the British and trying to negotiate with the Nazis. It is hard to say who was the greater fool.

The establishment of Israel in 1948 and its defeat of the first Arab attacks unleashed the sins of commission. The idea that Soviet Jews wanted to flee their glorious socialist motherland to Israel persuaded Stalin to ape the tactics of Hitler. The secret police began rounding up Jewish writers on charges of Zionism just four years after the overthrow of the Nazis. Stalin turned on Jewish Communist leaders across the new Soviet empire. In 1953, in his last days, he imagined a plot by Jewish doctors to poison him and the Soviet leadership. Historians dispute what would have happened if Stalin had lived, but it is possible that he would have deported the remaining Jews of European Russia to central Asia. Even after his death, the Polish Communist Party distracted attention from student protests by launching Europe’s last pogrom in 1968.

Three features of the old Left’s racism feel contemporary. Naturally, Communists could not say that Jews were members of a “Judaeo-Bolshevik” cabal. They had to recast the conspiracy as a right-wing plot and substitute “Zionist” for “Jew”. When Stalin put Rudolf Slansky and other Czech Communists on trial in 1952 the authorities announced: “The whole worldwide Zionist movement was in fact led and ruled by the imperialists, in particular the US imperialists, by means of US Zionists. For US Zionists, who are financially most powerful and politically the most influential Zionists, form part of the ruling imperialist circles of the USA.”

Rudé Právo, the organ of the Czech Communist Party, said that Slansky and his co-defendants were “Jewish cosmopolitans, people without a shred of honour, without character, without country, people who desire one thing — career, business and money”. Communists and their supporters imagined a vast Zionist conspiracy reaching from the US Supreme Court to Tito’s anti-Stalinist supporters in Yugoslavia. For all that, they maintained that they were not anti-Semites but enemies of Zionism. They might have been modern “leftists” talking about the “Israel Lobby” conspiring to organise the Iraq War of 2003, while all the time insisting that there was nothing remotely racist about their conspiracy theories.

The dog days of Stalin also saw a new loyalty test for left-wing Jews, many of whom did not consider themselves remotely Jewish. My grandfather, whose parents had fled to Britain from the pogroms in Lithuania, abandoned his religion and all connections to Jewish culture and became a Communist, as Lenin would have wanted. Objectively, there was nothing Jewish about him. But men like him, who had gladly broken free from their old religious and cultural identities and spent their life serving the party, saw the party use their ancestry to damn them. In Czechoslovakia, any Jew was a suspect. When the secret police imprisoned Artur London, deputy Foreign Minister in the Slansky government, the guard told him that Hitler was right about the Jews and “we will finish what he started”.

London was as much astonished as frightened: “This was the first time in my adult life that I was insulted because I was a Jew and was held to be a criminal because of my race — and that by a man from State Security of a socialist country, a member of the Communist Party. Was it possible that the mentality of the SS had risen in our ranks?”

Western Communists of Jewish origin rushed to prove their loyalty by supporting the pogrom; not out of fear of physical violence, for no one could threaten them in the West, but out of fear of the ostracism that would follow a falling out with the Left. Maxime Rodinson, a French Communist who defended the purges, later said that he could not face “the most obvious facts” about the fascistic nature of the Communists because of his “visceral need not to renounce a commitment that has illuminated one’s life, given it meaning, and for which many sacrifices have often been made”.

Ever since there have been loyalty tests and demands for left-wing Jews to speak “as a Jew” as Howard Jacobson puts it, and announce their shame of and contempt for Israel. The campaign to boycott Israeli universities, to quote the most sinister example, says that Israeli academics must prove that they are not anti-Palestinian before it will allow them to work with the Europeans — in the same manner as McCarthyites insisted that Hanns Eisler prove that he was not anti-American before they would allow him to work in the US.

Finally, who can deny that anti-Semitism was popular in Eastern Europe and Russia then, and is popular in the Middle East and parts of Europe now? Particularly if the more obviously “medieval” features of the prejudice are dropped and anti-Semitism is recast as anti-Zionism.

Leftist attitudes have been extraordinarily consistent. Communism gave way to anti-colonialism. Israel remained a target for special rage, even though Zionism was both a settler movement and an anti-colonial movement that attacked the forces of the British empire. Anti-colonialism gave way to the 1968 rebellions. In Germany, the left-wing terrorists around the Baader Meinhof gang claimed to be against the Nazism of their parents. They proved they were just like their parents when they planted a bomb at a meeting to commemorate the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Today the bulk of the Left has forgotten its old appeals to universal values. Conservatives and liberals are more likely to emphasise the need to assimilate, while the Left “celebrates” diversity and difference — for everyone, that is, except Jews.

I could go on but must anticipate an objection. Sensible and well-meaning people might say, “If hatred of Israel from the Left has been remarkably consistent, that’s the fault of Israel and those Jews who support it.” They have a small point.

Israel is unique among nations. It is the only sovereign country whose right to exist is questioned as a matter of routine. No other country — not China, Zimbabwe, Sudan or Iran — suffers comparable abuse. Left-wing viewers of the atrocities in Syria must be baffled. Who knew that the Assad family was capable of such crimes? Who told them that anyone in the Middle East outside Palestine had good cause to revolt?

But those who say that the bias of much leftish protest is a reason to exonerate Israel miss the point that injustice in Palestine is still injustice, and people are entitled to protest against it. Anti-Semitism plays a part in Israel-hating, so does the unhappy status of Jerusalem as a sacred city for fanatics from three warring creeds. But many who defend the rights of Palestinians are not fanatics. They may devote disproportionate energy to their cause. They may or may not be blind to the suffering of others. But that is no reason to damn them. They oppose Israeli policy because contrary to the Balfour Declaration it impinges on the civil rights of non-Jewish communities.

Sceptical readers of Shindler’s book might go further and wonder what his history of left-wing anti-Semitism has to do with them. By “the Left” he means the far Left. In Stalin and Mao’s day it was one of the most horrifying forces humanity has witnessed. Now it is nothing. The Soviet Union is gone. China is a state capitalist power. Who cares about Communism? It is as dead as the Albigensian heresy or the Stuart claim to the English throne. Even Marxists don’t believe in Marxist-Leninism any more.

But in a strange manner few discuss, the death of Communism has freed far-Left ideas from the cage of the Cold War. When the far Left was a global force, the mainstream liberal Left had to draw dividing lines and defend itself from its attacks. Now that the far Left threatens no one, the borders have gone. The media would hound from public life any conservative who shared platforms with members of a neo-Nazi group. But respectable leftists can now associate with those who would once have been regarded as poisonous extremists — and no one notices. What applies to personal alliances applies equally to ideology. Foul ideas flood past the unmanned border posts, with disastrous consequences for Jews and Arabs.

The influence of far-Left ideas on attitudes towards the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is too obvious to spend much time on. You will have noticed how rarely discussion of a workable solution appears. Most Israelis and most Palestinians favour a compromise, which includes a fair distribution of land, an end to violence, and security — essentially dividing the country on 1967 lines. Compromise is as much an anathema to the far Left and the Islamists as it is to the Israeli and American Right. Increasingly, it is anathema to the mainstream liberal Left as well. The notion that Israel is an illegitimate state has gone from the fringe to the mainstream of left-wing discourse.

For Arabs, the European Left is proving a disastrous influence. The spirit of the Hitler-Stalin pact lives on in the coalition between white leftists and the Islamist religious Right. Such alliances are scandalous. They can bring no good to Arabs in general and Arab women in particular. They expose the insincerity of the anti-sexist and anti-racist principles that leftists claim to hold. Yet they are tolerated almost without comment. Islamists are against the West in general and Israel in particular, and the Left can ignore the sufferings that theocrats impose from Iran to Gaza. This tendency to forget about the very people you say you are championing is the final legacy of a dark past.

 Ralph Miliband, the father of Ed and David, dissected it well. He was a Marxist who retained the capacity for independent thought, and got into a furious argument with Marcel Liebman, a fellow Marxist Jew, at the time of the Six Day War of 1967. Miliband pointed out an essential truth: that the corrupt regimes of the Middle East needed Israel and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to distract the attention of their peoples. “If Israel did not exist, they would have to invent it,” he said.

 He despaired of the willingness of leftists to go along with Nasserite Egypt. His friend, like so many others, indulged Colonel Nasser even though he had used former Gestapo officers to turn Egypt into a repressive military dictatorship that, despite the Arab Spring, survives to this day. All Nasser had to do was shout about “socialism”, “imperialism” and “revolution”, said Miliband, and they would come running. “The sad thing is that this sterling Left is incapable of distinguishing anything from anything, and reacts with a truly Pavlovian predictability to the slogans used to make it drool on cue.”

Now as then, nothing makes the sterling Left’s spittle flow more freely than mention of the state of Israel. They may not know it, for they know very little, but the origins of their Pavlovian response lie deep in the terrible history of the 20th-century Left.

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