“The discussion of socialist and Marxist attitudes to antisemitism … has often been confused by the erroneous and illogical assumption that left-wing parties are immunized against racial, religious, or ethnic prejudice.” So says Robert Wistrich in his latest book, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: the Left, the Jews, and Israel, another of his invaluable contributions to the scholarship on anti-semitism.
Dr. Wistrich, a professor at Hebrew University and head of its Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Antisemitism, is a leading scholar on anti-semitism whose immediately preceding book, A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad is perhaps the best history of the subject. He has long had an interest in the relationship of the left and Jews, back at least as far as his doctoral dissertation at the University of London in 1974.
Dr. Wistrich’s range in this study is most impressive, going back to Marx before he developed his ideology of dialectical materialism. He deals with important personalities as well as movements. All the while, he takes differences and even nuances into account. He also does not ignore the pro-Zionism of some socialists. The carefulness of the analysis matches the extensiveness of the history. The author recognizes the prominent Jewish presence on the left and, notably, does not try to shy away from considering the strange and ugly phenomenon of Jewish anti-semitism.
For many preoccupied with current events, the final section of the book, “Anti-Zionist Mythologies”—especially the last chapter “The Marxist-Islamist Alliance”—will be the payoff, but it is a payoff precisely because Dr. Wistrich’s conclusions are not impressionistic nor based upon sloppy generalizations but arise from an insightful examination of the historical record.
Thus, on the fraught issue of the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, he writes:
“Anti-Zionism, like antisemitism, has developed its own version of occult, sinister Jewish influences, working to undermine the international political order. Thus, among Islamists as well as on the far left, it has increasingly become an ideology imbued with irrational conspiracy theories, mythical symbols, and a culture of hatred. Whether the rhetoric of anti-Zionism happens to be Marxist, Muslim, Christian, Third Worldist, fascist, or openly neo-Nazi, it is replete with stereotypical notions of the perfidy and diabolical cunning of the Jews…The more radical anti-Zionists no less than the classical anti-Semites are obsessed with the ubiquity and malignant impact of the Jews on the modern world.”
And further on: “Anticapitalist antisemitism underpinning radical anti-Zionism is an integral part of the Marxist-Islamist ideological axis which seeks to redeem the contemporary world from the sinister ‘plots’ of American imperialism and the yoke of Zionist ‘oppression.’”
Still, this is not, I think, an anti-leftist book. At its best, the left seeks to relieve the sufferings of the poor and the yoke of the oppressed, but no human being or human movement is always at its best.