I have just come back (31 August) from attending a large demonstration in central London protesting the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK.
The demonstration was organised by a new group called the Campaign Against Antisemitism. It was backed by all the major Jewish organisations in Britain, including the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and many others. Nearly a thousand people signed up to attend the demo on Facebook; it looked to me like at least that number there. The crowd seemed overwhelmingly Jewish.
Now if this had been a demonstration against racism, organized by the leadership of the Black communities in Britain, I can guarantee you that a wide range of left groups would have been there to show their solidarity. You would have found assorted Trotskyists and others selling their newspapers, handing out leaflets and showing that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with an ethnic minority group struggling against racist assaults, while busily trying to recruit new members.
But at this demonstration, I didn’t see a single left group of any kind with an obvious presence. There may have been individual socialists — like myself — there; but there were no banners, newspapers, or flyers.
The Jewish community seemed to be very much on its own. As if it alone could sense the danger.
On the face of it, this is odd. The rise of anti-Semitism in Britain and across Europe is well documented. Even the Muslim Council of Britain seems to acknowledge this problem in the joint declaration it issued last week together with the Board of Deputies calling for a joint fight against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
The eloquent Owen Jones addressed the problem in a recent column for the Guardian.
Entitled “Anti-Jewish hatred is rising – we must see it for what it is”, Jones wrote that “there really is plenty of antisemitism that must be confronted.” And he then went on to point to rising anti-Semitism on the far right in Greece. And Jew-hatred among the far-rightists in Hungary. And of course anti-Semitism on the French far right, in the form of the National Front.
But not a word about anti-Semitism in the UK. And of course no mention of anti-Semitism in Muslim communities, or the left.
Jones is possibly unaware of the long history of anti-Semitism on the left, a history that goes back to the very earliest days of our movement. August Bebel, the great leader of German Social Democracy, famously called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools”. (Some scholars think that the quote is wrongly attributed to Bebel, but no matter — it was widely known more than a century ago.)
Classic anti-Semitic ideas like exaggerated notions of Jewish power and wealth grew in the fertile soil of the left long before the Palestinian issue ever arose. Left anti-semitism pre-dates the recent Gaza war by at least a century. It may flare up when the guns are firing in Gaza, but it is always there, a low flame that doesn’t extinguish.
People like Owen Jones, and many of those on the British left who were so notably absent from today’s demonstration, seem prepared to see anti-semitism everywhere but in front of their noses.
Their opposition to Jew-hatred may be called the “anti-anti-Semitism of fools” as it has nothing in common with a real fight against anti-semitism.
As a result, they leave the Jewish community alone — or drive it into the arms of right-wing demagogues who are happy for any excuse to bash the Muslim community or the left.
And it doesn’t have to be that way.
The left should be in the forefront of the fight against anti-semitism, should embrace that fight and claim it as our own. We should be helping to build widespread public support for that fight, and providing it with analysis and programme.
Instead, the left sits by the sidelines, its head in the sand, muttering about “Golden Dawn” in Greece rather than actually fighting the poison of anti-semitism here in the UK, and here on the left.