Members Only | November 2, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Antisemitism is hate. Hate doesn’t need reasons
Poor material conditions don't turn people into antisemites.
Antisemitism is the socialism of fools.” No one is exactly sure who first said this, but it’s treated today as a truism. Antisemitism, in this formulation, is the result of displaced economic anxiety.
Working people should direct their ire at the capitalist class, the thinking goes, but the capitalist class befuddles and misdirects them, so that they think their oppressors are Jewish people instead.
The problem with this understanding of antisemitism is that it’s not true. Jewish people are sometimes hated for (supposedly) having money. But they’ve also been hated for (supposedly) threatening those with money.
At a time when antisemitism is becoming accepted in the mainstream right, it’s important to be clear that antisemitism isn’t caused by poverty or a rational concern about living standards in any way. Antisemitism is irrational; it’s hatred. It can be twisted to various political programs, but at bottom it has its own logic — or illogic.
Again, antisemitism does sometimes take the form of a kind of garbled critique of capitalist hierarchy. One of the most popular stereotypes of Jewish people is that they are greedy and hoard wealth and power in order to manipulate and exploit others.
Rapper Kanye West channeled this strand in recent social media posts where he declared “the Jewish community, especially in the music industry … they’ll take us and milk us till we die.”
There is a brutal history of exploitation of Black artists in the music industry. But that exploitation has been perpetrated by (mostly) white capitalists, and by a white supremacist legal system that wouldn’t enforce Black legal rights. Jews, as Jews, or as a group, weren’t the culprits. Kanye is engaging in the socialism of fools.
This isn’t the only form of antisemitism, though. Historically, the most devastating antisemitic conspiracy theories have cast Jews not as capitalists, but as anti-capitalists. The Nazis associated Jews with Marxists.
In fact, Adolf Hitler basically believed Jews and Marxists were the same. He thought all Marxists were Jews and all Jews were Marxists.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler referred to “the Jewish doctrine of Marxism” that “rejects the aristocratic principles of Nature and replaces the eternal privilege of power and strength by the mass of numbers.”
Hitler thought that Jewish people had formulated Marxism in order to undermine the natural order of Aryan white supremacy. Nazi antisemitism was what you might call an anticommunism of fools.
The fools in this case were the leaders of German industry. Hitler promised to eliminate trade unions and shoot leftists in the street — a program that the wealthy were eager to pay for.
The antisemitic conflation of Jews and leftists isn’t a historical relic. It’s very much alive and well. Its most virulent and popular manifestation today is in the demonization of George Soros.
Soros is a Holocaust survivor, a billionaire businessman and a Democratic donor. He’s become an all-purpose far-right scapegoat, who’s reliably accused of funding and masterminding everything that the right thinks is wrong with the country and the world.
For example, Soros was falsely accused of funding a migrant caravan from Central America in 2018. The right also made up lies and conspiracy theories claiming Soros funded the 2020 George Floyd protests against racist police brutality.
Part of the appeal of attacking Soros is that he’s very wealthy, which dovetails with antisemitic stereotypes. But Soros isn’t accused of capitalist exploitation. Conspiracy theories targeting him aren’t about him mistreating workers or controlling particular industries.
Instead, Soros is hated for, supposedly, being a shadowy mastermind using his fortune to spread leftist ideas that undermine America and the white race. Soros is not portrayed as a wealthy businessperson crushing working people. He’s portrayed as an insidious leveler who is threatening white power and (white) national unity.
That’s an update of Hitler’s antisemitism.
As with Hitler, it’s very dangerous.
The man who attacked Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, killing 11, was an avid consumer of Soros conspiracy theories. He thought Soros was trying to dilute and weaken white America via unrestricted immigration. The shooter chose Tree of Life as a target because the synagogue participated in a Shabbat service for refugees hosted by HIAS, a Jewish organization that resettles refugees.
“Jews are waging a propaganda war against Western civilization and it is so effective that we are headed towards certain extinction within the next 200 years and we’re not even aware of it,” the shooter said.
The shooter wasn’t angry about his falling living standards; his antisemitism wasn’t a kind of substitute for socialist analysis and commitments. Rather, he hated Jewish people because he saw them as spreading left ideas about racial equality and diversity.
The various strands of antisemitism aren’t incompatible. Kanye sees Jews as manipulating the music industry to exploit Black people. The Tree of Life shooter sees Jews as manipulating immigration to bring down Western civilization.
The details are different, but as antisemites, they can agree that Jewish people are shadowy manipulators with great power who are not to be trusted.
Still, the exact strand of antisemitism that’s currently ascendant can determine which Jewish people are most vulnerable and how antisemitism is used politically.
Antisemitism isn’t necessarily, or primarily, a way to redirect economic concerns or economic anxiety. It can instead be a way to solidify racism, to target protestors, or simply to justify and rationalize violence against political enemies, especially on the left.
You can’t address antisemitism by improving economic conditions. The rich can be plenty antisemitic, as Donald Trump demonstrates.
Rather, antisemitism is often used by the right to delegitimize unions or movements designed to help those with less wealth and power. It addresses the grievances, not of fools, but of white supremacists.
Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.