Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism

Sai Englert and Alex de Jong

01 September 2023

Antisemitism has grown exponentially over the last decade or so. While it has done so in tandem with other forms of racism, oppression, and prejudice, fuelled by a growing global far right, its recent trajectory from the periphery to the centre of Western racist ideas, discourse, and action deserves attention.

In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, antisemitism could easily be considered to have become a fringe phenomenon. The Holocaust and its memory were central – as they still are – to Western states’ self-image, not without irony (forgetting in the process that European ruling classes had fuelled antisemitism throughout the continent and supported fascism and Nazism as a counter force to the threat of Communism at home and abroad).[1]

Simultaneously, a newly rising far-right appeared to have abandoned antisemitism altogether – or at the very least having pushed it to the outer edges of its political organisations. This process was most strikingly captured by the struggle within the French National Front (now renamed the National Rally), between Le Pen father and daughter, over the place of antisemitism in the party and the centrality of Islamophobia as a mobilising mechanism.[2]

Yet, perhaps predictably, the stronger the far-right became, the bolder it grew and ideas that were previously considered to be incompatible with ‘dediabolisation’ resurfaced. Antisemitism reappeared more obviously within its arsenal and continues to be normalised as far-right parties take power (Hungary, Italy, Brazil, India) or exert growing influence on elected officials (the US government under Trump and most European countries). We are now in a situation in which antisemitic violence carried out against Jewish people and places of worship repeatedly occur, most strikingly in France and the United States, while antisemitic ideas about ‘globalists’ and other ‘Jewish space lasers’ have taken central stage in the far-right’s rhetoric. They played a central role in the election of Donald Trump, are reappearing in the Tory right, and are now a regular feature in the public pronouncements of the Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands, to name but a few.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


The Left

In the face of such a striking and worrying phenomenon, one could be forgiven to assume that the response of those who claim to maintain the liberal status quo would have been swift and uncompromising. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. While playing into the hands of the far-right on issues of migration, Islamophobia, trans-rights, and law-and-order narratives – thereby severely constraining their ability to challenge its rise – centrist politicians, journalists, and commentators have turned their ire against the left and its support for Palestinian liberation instead. Through conflations of antisemitism with anti-Zionism – itself based on the antisemitic notion that Jews everywhere and the state of Israel are synonymous – pro-Israeli activists and lawmakers have constructed a narrative that the real danger to Jewish people in the West are not those violently targeting them or resuscitating old and dangerous conspiracy theories, but left-wing parties, movements, and organisations. It is worth restating in passing that, more often than not, the very same organisations are at the forefront of the fight against the growth of the former.

While pro-Israeli – or indeed Israeli – politicians continue to cosy up with far-right demagogues (Steve Bannon), far-right governments (Italy and Hungary) or antisemitic politicians (Poland), they simultaneously aim to institutionalise the criminalisation of pro-Palestinian voices and movements as a threat to the Jewish people. They have done so through the widely discredited International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working-definition of antisemitism (most recently rejected by the UN special rapporteur), as well as decrees aiming to outlaw the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in France, Germany, Austria, numerous US states, Canada, and (so-far unsuccessfully) Britain.[3] 

The story of the “Hijacking Memory: The Holocaust and the New Right” conference is a useful illustration in this regard.[4] Organisers and participants – among the leading specialists in the field – gathered in Berlin to discuss the importance of Holocaust memory and its (mis)use by the political right, including the growing threat of outright Holocaust revisionism. One solitary contribution in the three-day conference came from a Palestinian participant, Dr Tareq Baconi,[5] who pointed out the dangers of weaponising Holocaust memory in order to deny the Palestinian people’s right to liberation. Nothing, at first glance, controversial or out of place given the conference’s stated aims. Yet, first Baconi and then the conference organisers, were accused of antisemitism, dragged through the German press, and the venue where the conference was held was even threatened with losing its funding by the state. The real danger in the eyes of the German establishment were not those weaponising or trivialising the Holocaust. It was the very people targeted by said weaponisation.[6]

The tendency to flip reality on its head in order to delegitimise the left – and any anti-systemic critique that it might offer in a time of simultaneous ecological, economic, and political crisis – was perhaps most visible in the sustained campaign waged by pro-Israeli organisations and right-wing politicians (in both the Labour and Conservative parties) against Jeremy Corbyn.[7] A life-long campaigner against racism and antisemitism was vilified as an existential threat to the Jewish people, while Tory politicians built statues to Nazi-sympathisers and maintained friendly relations with Steve Bannon and Viktor Orban.[8] Unfortunately, many on the left similarly failed to see the wood for the trees and participated in the construction of a narrative of a specific, if not primary, left-wing problem with antisemitism.[9]

This issue is certainly not limited to Britain, or to those who failed to understand the attacks on Corbyn, the left, and the Palestine solidarity movement for what they were. As Leandros Fischer reminds us in his paper, the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, the characterisation of Palestine solidarity activism and migration as the sources of contemporary European antisemitism, and the failure to challenge the (often pro-Israel) far-right as the key driver of antisemitic reaction has a long history on the left, especially in Germany. In dissecting the political history and theory of the anti-German current, he offers us the tools to understand, critique, and challenge these wider processes that have become so familiar, well beyond the borders of the German state. Jean-Pierre Couture, in focussing on France and the specific history of the systematic (and wilful) misreadings of Marx, recasting the radical thinker and the movements that take inspiration from his thought as antisemites, similarly helps us make sense of the current impasse and the intellectual tools necessary to break out of it.

This is where the impulse for this special issue is located. How to make sense of the contemporary rapid growth of antisemitism, its importance in the rise of the (far-)right, and the striking inability to name, locate, and fight it effectively that has paralysed much of the left? What can Marxism offer us in this process, beyond the well-rehearsed reflections on the Marxist classics of the beginning of the twentieth century? And if these classics remain of importance to our present moment, how are we to understand, engage with, and mobilise them today? How can the left rebuild an analysis of contemporary antisemitism – and social movements against it – which neither counterpose it to support for Palestinian liberation, nor isolate it from wider structures of racialised, gendered, or sexual oppression, discrimination, and violence. It is in the hope of addressing these issues – or at least to offer an impetus to the necessary discussion and debates surrounding them – that we put together this collection of essays. We hope that they will elicit critical engagement, reflection, and responses in the months and years to come.

Marxism and the Jewish Question

When discussing a Marxist approach to the issue of antisemitism, a number of texts are widely shared reference points. This special issue contains papers discussing two of such texts; Marx's essay 'On the Jewish Question' (written in 1843, published in 1844) and Moishe Postone's 1979 essay 'Anti-Semitism and National Socialism'.[10]  Both contain valuable insights but need to be read in their historical context.

Out of all of Marx’s writings, this article might be the most misunderstood. ‘On The Jewish Question’ has often been read as showing antisemitic tendencies in Marx’s thought, or even as proof of the thesis of ‘an antisemitic Marx’ as Couture writes in his article on ‘The French Debate on ‘Zur Judenfrage’: From an Anachronistic Trial to the Crisis of Secularism’. For a supporter of this thesis, like historian Pierre Birnbaum in his Géographie de l’espoir, ‘Marx advocated nothing less than the necessary and unavoidable end of the Jews’[11].

Many readings of 'On the Jewish Question' are in fact anachronistic, missing the emergence of a specific, modern form of antisemitism. As Postone pointed out, ‘modern anti-Semitism’ (a term popularised in Germany in the early 1880’s by the agitator Wilhelm Marr)[12] should not be confused with ‘everyday anti-Jewish prejudice’ – it rather is an ideology, a form of thought, which emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century.[13] Although building on older forms of Christian hostility towards Jews, modern antisemitism drew on a wider field of references, themes, and identities than only the religious, such as national belonging and ‘scientific’ notions of race.[14] A lack of attention to the historical specificity of modern antisemitism is part of the explanation for the many misreadings of ‘On the Jewish Question’.

To understand ‘On the Jewish Question’, it is necessary to keep the polemical character of the text in mind.[15] 'On the Jewish Question' was Marx’ response to two articles by Bruno Bauer that had appeared in the two previous years, ‘Die Judenfrage’ [The Jewish Question, 1842] and ‘Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden’ [The capacity of today’s Jews and Christians to become free, 1843]. Before the break between the two authors in 1842, Bauer had been Marx’s closest friend, and he likely exercised a lasting influence on Marx’ conception of critique.[16] Bauer argued that political emancipation entailed human emancipation but would only be possible after the state and its citizens had become ‘emancipated’ from religion.[17] To become ‘truly’ free, the Jews needed to renounce Judaism, and the constitutional state needed to renounce Christianity. Any attempt by Jews to maintain themselves as a group defined by religion was incompatible with such emancipation.

Marx rejected this thesis and argued that the ideas of liberal democracy, such as freedom and equality, in practice are embedded in the bourgeois right to private property:

But, the right of man [menschenrecht] to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property.

What constitutes man’s right to private property? […] The right of man to private property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion (à son gré), without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realisation of his own freedom, but thebarrier to it.[18]

According to Daniel Bensaïd, ‘On the Jewish Question’ marked a decisive moment in Marx’s surpassing of radical liberalism and its illusions.[19] It is the starting point of Marx’s critique of the limits of the French Revolution, of the democratic state, and human rights.[20] In this special issue, Igor Shoikhedbrod shows how Bauer’s opposition to the equal rights of Jews ‘is used by Marx as a foil for dissecting the potential and limitations of political emancipation within the framework of the modern constitutional state’ while simultaneously recognising the necessity of such emancipation, thereby informing a ‘Marxist internationalism – one that is sensitive to the global history of persecution and oppression’.

‘On the Jewish Question’ is first of all a critique of the limits of political emancipation, and was, perhaps unfortunately, of limited use for Marxist movements that were confronted, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the rise of modern antisemitism. The leaders and thinkers of these movements initially interpreted antisemitism as a response to economic crises and increased competition between different parts of the petite bourgeoisie. One of the most prominent leaders of the German SPD in that period, August Bebel, claimed that only in 1877 antisemitism came out in the open as a political current in Germany. According to Bebel this was the ‘natural effect and consequence of the economic conditions’ that arose after the crash of 1873. It was economic misery and precarity that made the middle-layers of society susceptible to demagogues who scapegoated ‘Jewish’ exploitation. An accident of European history meant that Christian religious hostility against Jews had as an effect that they were over-represented in economic middle layers, in roles associated with finance and trade, and they thereby appeared as convenient scapegoats.

This economic misery was however inescapable as capitalist development increasingly rendered intermediate social layers obsolete. According to Bebel, this meant that antisemitism itself was doomed to become obsolete as its bankruptcy would be revealed by the development of capitalism itself. Even expelling all Jews from German areas, Bebel concluded, ‘would not change the foundations of our society by one inch’; ‘not the Jews, but capitalism is the enemy of the anti-Semitic middle-layers’. It was inevitable that the ‘declining middle-layers’ would increasingly realise this; ‘and they will then come to the realisation that they have not only to fight against the Jewish capitalist, but against the rule of the capitalist class’. At this point, ‘against its will and by necessity’, antisemitism would ‘become revolutionary, and thus play into the hands of us, the Social Democracy.’[21]

Bebel’s faith that the development of capitalism would force even antisemitism to play into the hands of socialism was an extreme example of a belief in progress that characterised much of the Marxist approach in this period. In ‘Rasse und Judentum’ [Race and Jewishness] from 1914, Karl Kautsky likewise expected that capitalist development would inexorably lead to the assimilation of Jews into wider society, thereby dissolving their difference and antisemitic hostility towards it. It had been in the interest of the development of industrial capitalism that the walls around the Jewish ghettos had come down in Europe, and the further development of capitalism towards socialism would end the last vestiges of antisemitism.[22] Antisemitism was the regressive ideology of an outdated petite bourgeoisie, and especially in Tsarist Russia a device with which the state tried to divide the working class. Kautsky denied any historical resilience to the social and cultural distinctions of Jewish populations. Because of their specific social and economic functions and antisemitic hostility towards them, Jews formed a ‘caste’, according to Kausky. Otto Bauer shared a similar approach, explaining the existence of Jews as a national group in historical terms, as supposedly the outcome of their role as merchants in pre-capitalist societies.[23]

‘Only in the ghetto,’ argued Kautsky, ‘in enforced isolation from their environment and under political pressure, without rights and amid hostility, does Jewishness persist.’ Wherever Jews were treated as free and equal, it supposedly dissolved as class contradictions developed among the Jewish population along parallel lines as in the rest of society.[24] The way to their liberation, and hence their assimilation, for Jews was participation in the proletarian class struggle.[25] As individuals, Jews had played revolutionary roles in the workers’ movement, Kautsky recognized, but Jewishness was only reactionary, a ‘feudal remnant’ that ought to disappear ‘the earlier, the better’ for the whole of society, clearing the way for the creation of a higher form of societal organisation.[26]

Bebel’s and Kautsky’s approach was shared by later writers. Otto Heller, a faithful Stalinist, in ‘Der Untergang des Judentums’ [The Decline of Jewishness] (1930) added that the Jewish question was partly a national one. ‘The demise of Jewishness in its social conception’ according to Heller meant ‘the dissolving of the Jewish cast, bourgeois emancipation and assimilation of the Jews in the West; the solution of the Jewish question where it is simultaneously a social and national question, in the East, through the proletarian revolution: all of this destroys the social preconditions for the return of antisemitism’.[27]

As Traverso writes in his survey of the Marxists and the Jewish Question, the ‘classic’ approach to antisemitism probably found its most sophisticated example in the work of Abram Leon, a young Polish Jewish intellectual who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 26.[28] In his work The Jewish Question, completed in 1942 but published posthumously in Paris in 1946, Leon built on earlier analyses of Jewish history as the outcome of the supposed ‘socio-economic function of the Jews’; ‘Above all the Jews constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely, a people-class’.[29] According to Leon, it was capitalism that posed the Jewish Question when, by destroying feudal society, it also ‘destroyed the function of the Jewish people-class’ while being unable to absorb ‘the Jew liberated from [this] social shell’.[30] But this also meant that modern forms of antisemitism were only ‘manifestations of the economic antagonism created by capitalism’.[31] ‘The plight of the Jews has never been so tragic’, wrote Leon, ‘but never has it been so close to ceasing to be that’.[32] Supposedly, ghettos and yellow badges did not prevent ‘the workers from feeling a greater solidarity with those who suffer most from the afflictions all humanity is suffering’. Socialism would open the way for resolving Jewish plight. Traverso observed that Leon concluded the traditional Marxist approach to the Jewish problem, ‘assimilation as a historical trend and an outcome of 'progress'’, ‘at a time when Auschwitz was sounding the death knell for a century of Jewish assimilation’.[33]

It was the horrors of Auschwitz that in the eyes of Adorno ‘makes all talk of progress towards freedom ludicrous’; ‘if freedom and autonomy still had any substance, Auschwitz could not have happened’. Confronted with the direct merger of politics with mass murder in Auschwitz and other camps, such talk becomes ‘the mere assertion of a mind that is incapable of looking horror in the face and that thereby perpetuates it.’[34]  In his contribution to this issue, Traverso considers the work of one thinker who did look the horror in the face, Günther Anders. For Anders, Auschwitz and Hiroshima named the transition to a new historical epoch, one in which humanity itself was ‘exterminable’ (tötbar).[35]

Whereas as the socialist movement historically tended towards a linear vision of progress, there is a need for what Michael Löwy has called ‘a dialectical conception of progress, which takes into account the negative aspect of capitalist modernity’.[36] In his contribution to this special issue, Löwy offers a reading of Kafka as an observer of one such aspect, of a bureaucratic ‘justice’ system ‘crushing the innocent individual under the wheels of the State machine’. In a different view of history Ishay Landa calls to ‘complete the revolution of 1789 and to follow the process of modernity through’ by recognizing the ‘locomotive of world history’ as a force for emancipation.

In a similar impulse to reassess the Marxist classics, Neil Levi subjects Postone’s essay to an immanent critique. Such a critique is all the more relevant because the essay has become a widely cited reference, including among Marxists who otherwise have little in common with Postone’s approach. Part of the explanation is the paucity of Marxist analyses of Auschwitz. While National-Socialism and fascism have been the subject of intense scrutiny, much less attention has been paid to the analysis of Auschwitz and of the processes leading up to it.

Postone’s essay itself dates from 1979. An English translation was published the following year, in New German Critique. The essay starts by examining the West-German response to the televised filmHolocaust and goes on to discuss the lack of attention to Auschwitz specifically in the West-German New Left. Only the second half of the text develops an analysis of antisemitism. According to Postone, this film was the first time that the majority of the generation politicised after 1968 had ‘concretely and viscerally been confronted with the fate of the Jews’; ‘they had known, of course, but apparently only abstractly.’

For Postone, ‘The post-war insistence on not having known should probably be interpreted as a continued insistence on not wanting to know. ‘‘We didn't know’’ should be understood as ‘‘we still don't want to know.’’ Admission of knowledge – even if acquired post factum – would have necessarily demanded an internal distancing from past identification and would have led to political and social consequences. Such consequences would have required among other things that former Nazi-officials could not have continued exercising their functions in the Federal Republic. But rather than an anti-fascist reckoning, ‘the demand was for ‘‘‘normalcy’’ at all costs, one to be achieved without dealing with the past. The strong identification with that past was not overcome, but simply buried beneath a surfeit of Volkswagens’.[37]

At this point, Postone’s essay can be read as an implicit critique of the Holocaust’s use as a universal key to understanding antisemitism as such. The failure to reckon with the specific nature of Nazi-antisemitism ‘was psychic self-denial and repression.’ The German left’s lack of knowledge about concrete Nazi-policies led, on Postone’s assessment, to an incomplete view of National-Socialism. Against this, Postone insisted on the ‘specificity of Nazism and the extermination of European Jewry’ and argued against interpretations of the Third Reich in ‘historically non-specific terms’. According to Postone, German feelings of guilt and shame led to a concern with the Nazi-past but one that avoided ‘the specificity of the past’.[38] In other words, Postone’s essay was not intended to be an analysis of antisemitism in general, nor of murderous, ‘redemptive’ antisemitism, but of specifically National-Socialist antisemitism.[39]

The main argument that Postone developed is that Nazi-antisemitism identified the figure of the Jews with ‘abstract’, financial capital as juxtaposed to concrete ‘industrial’ capital. Where the former was parasitic and rootless, the latter was productive. In Nazi-antisemitism, Jews became identified not only with money and the circulation of capital, as they had been already in pre-existing forms of antisemitism, but ‘were identified with capital itself’.[40] National-Socialism was, in terms of its self-understanding, a movement of revolt.[41] Nazi-leaders described their movement as driven by a ‘great anticapitalist yearning’, even a part of a ‘racial world revolution’.[42] Clearly, this was a very specific form of antisemitism, and an analysis of this form of antisemitism cannot simply be generalised.

Regardless of the value of the analysis developed in the second part of ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’, attention to the often neglected first part of the text should warn against attempts to use it as a general explanatory model.[43]

What then to make of the widespread use of the text and its analytical categories in ways that ignore Postone’s insistence on the specificity of German National-Socialist antisemitism? ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’ itself offers a critique avant la lettre of this use of the text; by ignoring the specificity of National-Socialist antisemitism, the antisemitism that had led to Auschwitz, other issues, such as the confrontation with authoritarian policies in the Federal Republic of Germany could be understood ‘as a direct struggle against fascism, an attempt to make up today for the lack of German resistance then.’[44] A similar mechanism can be seen in the contemporary so-called Antideutsch (Anti-German) milieu analysed by Fischer. Although Postone’s essay gained cult status in such circles, Anti-German currents are a stark example of the mechanism of German deflection described by him: attention to the specificity of German National-Socialism is replaced by opposition to a supposedly universal antisemitism. Instead of a reckoning with the German past and its consequences, the current focusses on attacks on the other, foremost on Palestinians and solidarity activists, and, as Fischer shows, a turn towards conformity with German raison d’etat. As Postone wrote in 1979, ‘What happened to the Jews has been instrumentalized and transformed into an ideology of legitimation for the present system’.[45]

Antisemitism, Zionism, and Palestinian Liberation

One important aspect of the contemporary debate – both because of the break it represents with most classical Marxist interpretations of the early twentieth century, and because of its centrality in contemporary public discourse – is the relationship between antisemitism, Zionism, and Palestinian liberation.[46] As already pointed out above, the current dominant narrative propelled by pro-Israeli organisations and politicians, and given material form through IHRA policies and anti-BDS legislation, is that the roots of modern antisemitism are located in the activities of the Palestine Solidarity movements and, by extension, Muslim migrant populations in Europe.[47] In this view, antisemitism is neither a European problem nor one that finds its roots in the classical arsenal of fascism on the one hand, and European nation-state formation on the other.

The so called ‘New Antisemitism’ was theorised around the turn of the millennium by a series of French neo-con intellectuals, some of whom had old roots in the 1968 left, who saw the rise of a new left and militant anti-racist politics in the banlieues as existential threats to the republic – for its stability at home, and its interests abroad.[48] At the very moment when fascism, in the form of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, grew to becoming a key contender in national politics for the first time in post-war history (the same Le Pen who described the Holocaust as ‘a detail of history’), the French right launched a sustained attack on the left and Muslim populations as the key danger faced by Jewish populations in the republic, to great and long lasting effect. In recent years, for example, the Macron government – following in the footsteps of its predecessors – anxious to demonstrate its ability to challenge the now renamed National Rally on its right, took aim at so-called ‘islamo-leftism’ while banning pro-Palestinian demonstrations and BDS initiatives.[49] The echoes with the similarly racist and repressive scarecrow of Judeo-Bolshevism of a century ago are obvious.

In their early and still seminal critique of this phenomenon, Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan identified the centrality of Palestine to this process.[50] The narrative functions in three steps: i) equate critiques of Israel and of French support for it with antisemitism; ii) claim that Jews are therefore under threat from growing support for Palestinian liberation, which in turn pre-supposes a perfect overlap between Jews and Zionism; iii) identify the left and Muslim populations’ support for Palestinian liberation with antisemitism – even (especially?) when those accused make a clear distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. All protestation critiquing Israel’s ongoing colonial rule over the Palestinian people is therefore not only pre-emptively silenced but also further proof of guilt: it is but a trick of the ‘New Antisemitism’ in order to hide its true colours. If, as Bensaïd wrote in 2005, antisemitism can become ‘the anti-imperialism of fools as it once was the socialism of fools’, the policies of the Israeli state and its allies will have done much to bring this about.[51]

Under this narrative, Palestinians and their treatment at the hands of the Israeli state – supported, armed, and financed by western states – are disappeared from view. Their demands are ignored or, worse, immediately turned into suspicious attempts to ‘single out’ the only ‘Jewish state’ in the world. Jewish populations, on the other hand, are made collectively synonymous with Israel and thereby positioned, as a sort of ideological shield, between the states in question and those protesting their imperialist and colonial practices.[52] This attitude points to a much longer-term historical shift in the imposed identification on Jewish populations in the West, under the dual influence of the Holocaust and the creation of the Israeli state.

Indeed, a number of the contributors to this special issue point to these much longer histories, both of attempts to delegitimise anti-Zionism by conflating it with antisemitism, as well as different forms of resistance against it. Salim Nadi, for example, introduces readers to the figure and work of Abraham Serfaty, a Marxist, Jewish, Moroccan revolutionary who thought through the connections between colonialism, antisemitism, and Zionism as a basis for revolutionary politics in the Maghreb. Readers are also presented with a text, previously unavailable in English, where Serfaty illustrates some of these connections and their practical consequences by focussing on the fate of Moroccan Jews, oppressed at home, exploited in Israel, and yet mobilised as cannon fodder by the reactionary regimes in both countries. Only internationalism, solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation, and the reclaiming of a pre-Zionist North African Jewishness can, for Serfaty, offer a road out of the impasse. If the text today reads more like a testimony of a road not taken, it points to a set of strategic commitments which remain nonetheless vital today.

Benjamin Balthaser and Sune Haugbølle also return to the 1960s and 1970s, in the United States and Denmark respectively, to present us with historical examples of how the left engaged in solidarity with the Palestinian people, addressed accusations of antisemitism, and fought to link their struggles together. Similar to their incarcerated Moroccan comrade, these movements developed ways to think about their own liberation in connection with that of the Palestinians – different circumstances linked through the structures of capitalism, racism, and imperialism.

The period that these texts engage with is crucial if we are to understand the changes to the nature of Western antisemitism, which have led to our current moment. Indeed, from the 1960s onwards, Western States shifted their attitude towards Jewish populations.[53] Under pressure from growing anti-colonial movements in the Global South and anti-racist movements at home, Western states re-imagined their history as one centred around the lessons of the Holocaust. Remembering the Nazi genocide –- without acknowledging the collective responsibility of European and North American ruling classes in financing the Nazi party and whipping up antisemitism in their own states – became a way to claim a newly imagined anti-racist identity for the very states that had either organised the extermination of the Jews in Europe, or been the fertile ground for half a century of antisemitic reaction in the run up to it. This white-washed Holocaust memory became, as Traverso has argued, a civil religion. As he warned: ‘Institutionalised and neutralised, the memory of the Holocaust thus risks becoming the moral sanction for a Western order that perpetuates oppression and injustice’.[54]

Indeed, alongside this process taking place from the early 1960s onwards in Western Europe and North America, Western support for Israel could then be constructed not as the continuation of the very imperialist and colonial policies that were being challenged across the globe, but as a form of anti-racist solidarity and a commitment to the most narrow and reactionary interpretation of the slogan: ‘Never Again’.[55] From pariahs and proto-typical enemies of the state, Jewish populations were re-invented by their oppressors of yesteryear as the defenders of Western civilisation par excellence. This defence was mobilised against racialised communities at home, and anti-colonial/imperialist struggles abroad. Far from protecting them or freeing them from oppression, Western states repositioned Jewish populations at the centre of their racist regimes, albeit in an inverted way. The consequences of this approach are all around us. Western states justify their support for Israel as support for an abstracted Jewish community, rather than self-interested imperialist policy. Jews who dissent are cast out. And the many hundreds of thousands who support Palestinian liberation and challenge their own states’ complicity are no longer anti-racist or anti-colonial activists but antisemites.

Antisemitism, Structural Racism, and Oppression

In this context, the analyses which identify, as Aimé Césaire and Hannah Arendt once did, the continuity between Nazi exterminationist policies and those carried out by the different European empires across the globe, help us to undermine these ideological constructions and to rebuild collective forms of solidarity and action.[56] Already in 1942, Karl Korsch noted that: ‘[t]he novelty of totalitarian politics in this respect is simply that the Nazis have extended to “civilized” European peoples the methods hitherto reserved for the “natives” or “savages” living outside so-called civilization’.[57] This approach, far from belittling the Holocaust or antisemitism, points to vital possible alliances in fighting all forms of oppression and exit the system that produces them as necessary to its reproduction and survival.

The question of the comparability of the Holocaust remains controversial and fractious today. Accusations abound that placing the Nazi genocide in the context of the long history of colonial processes of racialisation, dispossession, mass murder, and extermination, is synonymous with undermining its gravity – or even akin to revisionism. Germany, where furious debate has raged over the nature of the Herero and Nama genocide and its connection to the Holocaust for the last decade, once again serves as a helpful example in this regard.[58] As Jürgen Zimmerer has convincingly shown, it is not only appropriate but necessary to put the genocide carried out by German soldiers and settlers in Namibia in the early twentieth century in relation to the Holocaust in order to understand the latter fully.[59]

Whether in terms of the development of ideas of racial superiority and purity, the need for the German Volk to secure itsLebensraum, or the actual overlap in personnel in developing colonial and occupation policy in Africa and Eastern Europe, respectively, or settling the two territories, Zimmerer shows that the connections are as fundamental as they are numerous. This is of course to say nothing of the ways in which Nazi officials, not least amongst them Adolf Hitler himself, were wont to make these connections and comparisons explicit in their thought – from the racialisation and genocide of Indigenous populations in North America to British colonial rule in India.[60] Yet Zimmerer and others’ careful analyses of these parallels has been met with opprobrium in German public debate. To link the history of the Holocaust to that of colonial genocides is, in the eyes of the defenders of official history, paramount to undermine its gravity.

Leaving aside for now what this approach might tell us about the value such commentators attribute to the lives of former colonial subjects across the Global South, it is clear that positioning the Holocaust as an exclusive event, located almost out of time, is key to the process described above: making its remembrance – ritualised and de-politicised – central to Western self-image, cleansing it of its racist past. If the Holocaust remains disconnected – and implicit in this disconnection is the idea that it is ‘worse’ in an imagined hierarchy of barbarism – from the long history of 500 years of genocidal violence across the world, then Western states can reconcile the recognition and remembrance of one, with the disavowal of the others. It is, in fact, very much this question of recognition and reparations for its colonial crimes in Southwest Africa which lies at the centre of the contemporary German controversy.

It is worth noting, however, that another form of comparison has, in certain quarters, become all pervasive. Both Fisher and Miriyam Aouragh discuss in the pages of this special issue the ways in which Palestinians are repeatedly recast as a modern embodiment of the Nazi party. This phenomenon is long lasting and well documented in the history of Israeli depiction of the Palestinian national movement and its organisations.[61] Not only are early Palestinian notables accused of being the ideological source of the exterminationist policies of the Nazis, despite ample historical evidence to the contrary, but Arab and Palestinian national movements are regularly recast as the contemporary expression of this supposed desire, not to free Palestine, but to wipe the Jewish people of the map.[62]

 As both authors show, the tendency to obscure European histories of colonial and racial violence by projecting responsibility for them on their contemporary victims is not limited to Israel. Palestinians, the global solidarity movement, as well as other racialized groups – primary amongst which are Muslim populations in Europe – have been cast in much the same light by the propagators of the ‘New Antisemitism’ discourse. With the Western elites whitewashed and Israel made synonymous with Jewish people everywhere, any critique of the Israeli state can only be read through the prism of the unaddressed demons of the Western collective past. It is not out of Europe that modern antisemitism emerged, in this narrative, nor is it in the re-emergence of its far-right parties and movements that the danger lies. Instead, it is immigrants, Muslims, Palestinians, and their supporters who are ‘importing’ the scourge of antisemitism into the enlightened West. We return once more to the image with which we started: while Jean-Marie Le Pen announced freely on national television that the Holocaust had been ‘a detail’ in history, the French neo-cons argued it was from the banlieues that the danger came.

Comparison and connections are not only important to understand and identify the threat, but also in developing ways to fight it. If antisemitism is one specific expression of a wider framework of reactionary ideas and structures, then the struggle against it also needs to make these wider connections. Both Peter Drucker and Cihan Özpinar direct our attention to these issues. Drucker shows the striking parallels between the place that antisemitism and homophobia have and continue to play in the organisation of fascist and far-right parties. Both were key in the so-called period of ‘dediabolisation’ in the 1990s and early 2000s, when upholding supposed western values such as the equality of genders, religions, and sexualities in the face of imagined reactionary Muslim invasions became central to these movements’ narratives. It is also striking that as the far-right has grown in strength, this strategy has increasingly fallen to the wayside. Özpinar explores the connections between class and racialisation. While working class Muslims are targeted and isolated from wider society through the ‘New Antisemitism’ discourse, Muslim elites are turned into disciplining agents of ‘their’ community. Both processes, Özpinar argues, work in tandem to disorganise and weaken movements of contestation among Muslim populations in Europe.

It is not possible to understand the nature of antisemitism nor its different expressions without placing it within a broader framework of oppression, repression, and racialisation. Failing to do so also undermines the possibilities to challenge it. Put plainly, in the words of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer: “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”[63]

Where Next?

The need, then, for an adequate analysis of what antisemitism is, how to recognise it and fight it, could not be clearer.

Although many of the conclusions of the classical Marxist canon have proven mistaken – not least its emphasis on assimilation as a quasi-automatic (or desirable) process that would prove to be the solution to the oppression faced by Jewish populations – its approach, which insists on historicising the problem and confronting it within specific and changing circumstances, remains crucial. Similarly, the emphasis on reading (and fighting) antisemitism as one part of a broader network of oppression and exploitation, so central to the reproduction of capitalism, is one which serves as an important corrective to contemporary tendencies to exceptionalise and de-contextualise antisemitism.

The Marxist tradition and the socialist movement itself should not be exempt from investigation. Brendan McGeever’s work on antisemitism in the Russian revolution is a powerful example of this. Simon Pirani’s review discusses the crucial importance of not-only acknowledging the ways in which the Bolshevik revolution was a crucial step forward in the struggle against antisemitic terror in Eastern Europe, but also to recognise the ways in which revolutionary movements are not hermetically sealed off from the hegemonic reactionary ideas of their time. Here too, reading antisemitism and the struggle against it in a situated, historically informed, and interconnected manner opens up important avenues for analysis.

Although the Marxist tradition has valuable insights to offer, which we hope the pages of this special issue demonstrate, we also suggest that there is a need to overcome a certain Eurocentrism within it, which projects European patterns of antisemitism onto the world stage. Too often have the contributions of non-European Marxists been neglected, as both Nadi and Aouragh demonstrate. The same is true in how we approach the European Marxist tradition and its classical texts. Levi demonstrates in his critique of Postone, how crucial bringing in the wider history of empire, racialisation, and violence is if we are to understand antisemitism effectively.

However, if a Marxist approach to antisemitism is to be fruitful, that is to be useful both analytically and practically, it needs to turn its attention to the present. The late nineteenth century gave birth to a form of antisemitism that emerged out of the racialisations of the colonial world on the one hand and the emancipation of the Jewish populations in Europe on the other. Jewish difference was being made increasingly fundamental, biological even, at the very time when ‘the Jew’ from the mediaeval ghetto was vanishing from view. No longer kept in place by religious persecution but granted civil rights, ‘he’ could be everywhere. No longer defined religiously but racially, ‘he’ could never assimilate. These processes are not those faced by Jewish populations in the present. If Marxism is to be relevant, it must recognise and engage with the new ways in which ‘the Jew’ is being constructed by the material and ideological structures we face in the present.

This introduction and the special issue as a whole give some possible avenues for reflection: connection with Islamophobia, the place of Zionism and Holocaust memory in the projection of Western power, the rise of a new far right, and the shifting class position of both Jewish and other racialised communities, imperialism, and the ongoing crises of capitalism. We hope this special issue will not only reinforce the need to follow these paths of analysis and critique further, but also be a modest contribution to the renewed Marxist engagement with the critique of antisemitism - and the struggle against it.

[1] See for example, Traverso, Enzo 2016, The End of Jewish Modernity, London: Pluto Press, for a longer discussion of this phenomenon.

[2] Peter Drucker’s excellent essay in this special issue returns to this question and discusses a comparable phenomenon in regards to the far right’s relationship with homophobia.

[3] See for example, Rebecca Ruth Gould (2020), ‘The IHRA Definition of Antisemitism: Defining Antisemitism by Erasing Palestinians’, The Political Quarterly, 91(4), pp.825-831, for an overview and critique. For a full timeline see Palestine Legal (undated),’ Distorted Definition: Redefining Antisemitism to Silence Advocacy for Palestinian Rights’, Palestine Legal,

[4] Joshua Leifer’s account, ‘The Challenge of Defending Memory in Germany’,Jewish Currents (7th July 2022) is instructive,

[5] Baconi is the author of (2018), Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, Stanford: Stanford University Press, and the president of the board of the Palestinian policy Network Al Shabaka,

[6] For an excellent discussion and analysis of the relationship between the Holocaust and the Nakba, see Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, eds., (2019), The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, New York: Columbia University Press.

[7] For a critical overview of this process see Jamie Stern-Weiner, ed. (2019), Antisemitism and the Labour Party, London: Verso; Alex Nunns (Forthcoming),Sabotage: The Inside Hit Job That Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn, Or Books; Ed McNally (2020), ‘Jeremy Corbyn Was Successful When He Stuck to His Socialist Principles’,Jacobin, 7th October,

[8] Zoe Tidman (2019), ‘Theresa May unveils statue of 'virulently antisemitic' first woman MP’, The Independent, 29th November,

[9] See for example, David Renton (2021), Labour's Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong, Routledge; Daniel Randall (2021), Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists, No Pasaran Media.

[10] Different versions have appeared of ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’. The first English-language publication was ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: notes on the German reaction to ‘‘Holocaust’’’, New German Critique 19 (1980), pp. 97-115. A reworked and shortened version appeared in A. Rabinach and J. Zipes, eds., (1986),Germans and Jews since the Holocaust, Holmes & Meier. Moishe Postone (2005),Deutschland, die Linke und der Holocaust. Politische Intervention, Barbara Fried et al., eds., Ça ira-verlag contains a version incorporating different English and German language versions of the essay.

[11] Quoted by Daniel Bensaïd in: Karl Marx (2006), Sur la Question Juive. Présentation et commentaires de Daniel Bensaïd, La Fabrique, p. 25.


[12] Enzo Traverso (2000), Nach Auschwitz, ISP-Verlag, p. 38.

[13] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 106.

[14] Philippe Burrin (2005), Nazi Anti-Semitism. From Prejudice to the Holocaust, The New Press, p. 23.

[15] Detlev Claussen (2005), Grenzen der Aufklärung. Die gesellschaftliche Genese des modernen Antisemitismus, Fischer, p. 99.

[16] Michael Heinrich (2019), Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society: The Life of Marx and the Development of His Work (Volume I: 1818-1841), Monthly Review Press, pp. 286-288.

[17] Ilse Yago-Jung, introduction to Iring Fetscher, ed., (1974) Marxisten gegen Antisemitismus, Hoffman und Campe, p. 15.

[18] Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, online:

[19] Marx (2006), Sur la Question Juive, p. 13.

[20] Ibid, p. 29.

[21] August Bebel, ‘Sozialdemokratie und Antisemitismus. Rede beim Kölner Parteitag 1893’, online at

[22]  Karl Kautsky, Rasse und Judentum, in: Iring Fetscher, ed., (1974)Marxisten gegen Antisemitismus, Hoffman und Campe, p. 90.

[23]  Enzo Traverso (1994),The Marxists and the Jewish Question. The History of a Debate, Huminaties Press, pp. 76-82.

[24]  Kautsky, Rasse und Judentum, p. 92.

[25]  Ibid., p. 115.

[26]  Ibid., p. 119.

[27]  Otto Heller (1931) Der Untergang des Judentums, Wien/Berlin: Verlag für Literaur und Politik, p. 150. 

[28]  Traverso,Les Marxistes et la Question Juive, p. 225.

[29]  Ibid., p. 226.

[30]  Abram Leon (1970),The Jewish Question. A Marxist interpretation, Pathfinder Pres, p. 258.

[31]  Ibid., 266.

[32]  Ibid., p. 262.

[33] Traverso, Les Marxistes et la Question Juive, p. 243.

[34]  Theodor W. Adorno (2008) History and Freedom. Lectures 1964–1965, Cambridge: Polity, p. 7.

[35]  Enzo Traverso (2020),Critique of Modern Barbarism. Essays on fascism, anti-Semitism and the use of History, Amsterdam: IIRE, p. 48.

[36]  Michael Löwy (2000), Marx’s dialectic of progress: open or closed?,Socialism and Democracy, 14(1), pp. 35-44.

[37] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 99-101.

[38] Ibid, p. 102.

[39] It should be noted that at a later point Postone wrote that ‘modern anti-Semitism’ as such could be understood as ‘as a fetishized one-sided form of anticapitalism’ that ‘biologistically identifies’ Jews with ‘abstract capital’. See Moise Postone (2003),Time, Labor, and Social Domination. A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[40] Moishe Postone, ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’, in: Moishe Postone and Eric Santer eds., (2003),Catastrophe and Meaning. The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 93.

[41] Postone, ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’, p. 84.

[42] Alfred Rosenberg (2015),Die Tagebücher von 1934 bis 1944, Jürgen Matthäus and Frank Bajohr ed., Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, p. 629.

[43] For one recent critique of Postone’s thesis, also see Michael Sommer (2022),Anti-Postone: or, Why Moishe Postone's Antisemitism Theory is Wrong, but Effective, Cosmonaut Press.

[44] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 102.

[45] Ibid., p. 98.

[46] For a sustained and insightful reflection on the relationships between both over the long durée, see Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh, eds. (2020), The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond, New York: Columbia University Press.

[47] For an excellent study of these processes see Hil Aked (2023), Friends of Israel: The Backlash Against Palestine Solidarity, London: Verso.

[48] See for example Emmanuel Brenner, ed. (2002),Les Territoires Perdus de la République, Paris: Mille et une nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2002),La Nouvelle Judéophobie, Paris: Mille et une Nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2004),Prêcheurs de Haine: Traversée de la Judéophobie Planétaire, Paris: Mille et une Nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2021),Liaisons Dangereuses: Islamo-Nazisme, Islamo-Gauchisme, Paris: Hermann; Alain Finkielkraut (2003),Au Nom de l’Autre: Réflexions sur l’Antisémitisme qui Vient, Paris: Gallimard; Nicolas Weill (2004),La République et les Antisémites, Paris: Grasset.

[49] Selim Nadi (2021),’Emmanuel Macron’s Government Has Banned Palestine Solidarity Demonstrations’,Jacobin, 14th May,

[50] Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan, ‘“Anti-Semitism Everywhere” in France Today’, in Alain Badiou, Eric Hazan, and Ivan Segré (2013), Reflexions on Anti-Semitism, London: Verso.

[51] Daniel Bensaïd (2005), Fragments mécréants. Mythes identitaires et République imaginaire. Paris: Lignes.

[52] In responses to the imposition of the IHRA working definition in British universities, more than 120 Palestinian and Arab scholars, artists, and intellectuals, published a letter highlighting how their oppression - both historic and present - was being silenced and denied, while the struggle against antisemitism was being undermined by this weaponisation. See ‘Palestinian rights and the IHRA definition of antisemitism’,The Guardian, 29th November 2020,

[53] For a more detailed account of this process see Sai Englert (2018), ‘The State, Zionism and the Nazi Genocide: Jewish Identity-Formation in the West between Assimilation and Rejection’, Historical Materialism, 26(2), pp.149–177.

[54] Enzo Traverso (2016),The End of Jewish Modernity, London: Pluto Press, pp.126-7.

[55]  For a detailed account of the reimagination of the German State as an anti-racist actor and a friend to the Jewish people - via its support for Zionism - see the excellent Daniel Marwecki (2020),Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[56]  Hannah Arendt (1973), The Origins of Imperialism, London: André Deutsch, pp. 123, 138, 143, 218, passim. Aimé Césaire (2000),Discourse on Colonialism, New York: Monthly Review, pp . 35-40.

[57] Karl Korsh (1942), ‘Notes on History: The Ambiguities of Totalitarian Ideologies’, New Essays: A Quarterly Devoted to the Study of Modern Society, Vol. 6 (1942), no 2 (Fall), p. 1-9.

[58] Thomas Rogers (2023) provides a helpful English language overview of these recent debates in his ‘The Long Shadow of German Colonialism’,The New York Review, 9th March,

[59] Jürgen Zimmerer (2006), ‘The Birth of theOstland out of the Spirit of Colonialism: a Postcolonial Perspective on the Nazi Policy of Conquest and Extermination’,Patterns of Prejudice, 39(2), pp.197-219. See also Patrick Wolfe (2016),Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, London: Verso, for an excellent discussion of modern antisemitism within the general emergence of ‘race science’ and racism.

[60] Jürgen Zimmerer (2008), ‘Colonialism and the Holocaust – Towards an Archeology of Genocide’,Development Dialogue, 50,  p.95. Mahmood Mamdani (2020), Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 105-106

[61] Joseph Massad (2006),The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, New York: Routledge. See especially pp.132-134. Tom Segev (1993),The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, New York: Owl Books.

[62] For a careful and detailed debunking of these arguments see Gilbert Achcar (2009),The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, New York: Metropolitan Books.

[63] Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck (eds.) (2010), The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is,University Press of Mississippi, p.134.



Judaism, Zionism, and the Nazi Genocide

Jewish Identity Formation in the West between Assimilation and Rejection
Sai Englert


This paper explores contemporary Jewish identity-formation, identity politics, and the centrality of state-sanctioned commemoration of the Nazi genocide and Zionism – understood as the ongoing settler-colonial project aimed at the formation and maintenance of a Jewish-exclusivist state in Palestine – to both. It argues that dominant identity politics within the Jewish community are based on an understanding of identity, one which assumes it to be static and individual.

Firstly, this paper discusses the importance of studying processes of identification rather than assuming identity to be static, a-historical, or immutable. It argues that the state is a central actor in structuring processes of identification from above, and that it is in the contested relationship between the state and the population which it attempts to identify that identities are continuously re-created. It further places these processes within the emergence of European modernity and colonialism.

The paper then moves on to a discussion of modern processes of Jewish identification. It locates their origin within the emergence of the European nation-state. It highlights the different, and often opposing ways in which Jewish communities have historically responded to these state-led processes. The paper moves on to discussing how a political framework focussed on a fixed Jewish identity, and the centrality of Israel to that identity, has become dominant in recent years.

The paper then offers a critique of the classical Marxist approach to the Jewish question before analysing the development of new processes of identification of Jewish people in the West. Central to these are the strategic role of the Israeli state in the Middle East, and the crucial nature of official Holocaust history to Western self-representation.

Finally, the paper argues that contemporary Western states perpetuate antisemitism, albeit under a different guise, through the essentialisation of Jewish communities as an extension of the Zionist project in Palestine and as bearers of official state-sanctioned history. In doing so, the state mobilises these communities as representatives of its policies abroad, and discriminatory policies at home.

The paper’s conclusion is that far from operating as a shield against antisemitism, the state remains the central agent in the reproduction of antisemitism. The identification of many within the Jewish community with Israel and the Zionist project in Palestine, and with an official account of the Nazi genocide that whitewashes Western states, is an outcome of state processes of identification. The paper will focus mainly on Anglo-Saxon realities and examples, especially the UK but also the US, which constitute the largest and the fourth-largest Jewish communities outside of Israel. Additionally, the two states’ historic and contemporary role in supporting the Zionist movement in Palestine warrants this focus. 


Identity, Identification, and the Role of the State

The questions of narratives, history, and structures of power run throughout the literature on identity. In ‘Who Needs Identity?’, Stuart Hall discusses the tension between approaches to identity that favour either innate characteristics or long-term processes of identity-formation. Hall writes: 

In common sense language, identification is constructed on the back of a recognition of some common origin or shared characteristics with another person or group, or with an ideal, and with the natural closure of solidarity and allegiance established on this foundation. In contrast with the ‘naturalism’ of this definition, the discursive approach sees identification as a construction, a process never completed – always ‘in process’. It is not determined in the sense that it can always be ‘won’ or ‘lost’, sustained or abandoned.[1]

Identity, then, appears as a natural, intrinsic reality that is shared by members of the same group. It is experienced as a-historic and innate, a fundamental element at the heart of the individual’s sense of self, which has always been there and through which the experience of society is mediated. However, Hall invites his readers to look further and to reflect on the processes which create and re-create identities. Identities, then, for Hall are neither individual nor pre-existing categories. They are outcomes of contingent processes across society and through time.

If identities are so socially constituted, the question remains of who, or what, generates and shapes them. Lawrence Grossberg argues that ‘the question of identity is one of social power and its articulation to, its anchorage in, the body of the population itself’.[2] He locates the origins of this process within the emergence of modernity – an issue to which this paper returns below.

If Grossberg’s concept of ‘social power’ remains as vague as Hall’s ‘material and symbolic resources’, it points to an important aspect of the identification process: that power is required to generate identities across society, and that it is in the process of articulation of said power in the collective body of the ‘identified’ that identity emerges. Grossberg compares this tension between coercive power and popular consent to Marx’s formulation that people make history but not in conditions of their own choosing.[3] Identity is, then, the outcome of a power struggle between processes of identification from above and collective articulation of those processes from below, which generate and regenerate outcomes, always anew.

The extreme contingency of identity-formation and the fundamentally contradictory ways in which identity is understood, both in society and within the academic literature, has led others to reject the term altogether and focus on the process and its actors instead. Indeed, Roger Brubaker and Frederick Cooper argue in ‘Beyond “Identity”’ that the term itself has lost all explanatory power by being mobilised to denote not only different, but also opposing concepts, and that it should therefore be abandoned altogether. Instead, they propose to separate out the different elements contained within the concept of identity, and to talk about the processes of identification.

Furthermore, Brubaker and Cooper identify the modern state as a critical actor in this process of identification, not because it can create ‘identities’ in the strong sense – in general, it cannot – but because it has the material and symbolic resources to impose the categories, classificatory schemes, and modes of social counting and accounting with which bureaucrats, judges, teachers, and doctors must work and to which non-state actors must refer.[4]

This centrality of the state in the structuring of the categories of identification is also a key aspect of the settler-colonial literature. Indeed, the question of identification – and racialisation more specifically – of the indigenous and enslaved populations by the settler-colonial state is a central aspect of this growing body of work. Furthermore, much like Grossberg above, scholars of settler-colonialism locate the origins of racialisation in the emergence of European modernity and the nation-state.

For example, Paula Chakravarty and Denise Ferreira da Silva have noted that racialisation was central to European colonialism because "[i]n the post-Enlightenment era, once universality and historicity became ethical descriptors of the properly human, then the task of justifying how rights such as life (security) and freedom had not been ensured for all human beings required that human difference … become irresolvable."[5]


In the same vein, Wolfe writes:

Racial identities are constructed in and through the very process of their enactment … [R]ace is colonialism speaking, in idioms whose diversity reflects the variety of unequal relationships into which Europeans have co-opted conquered populations.[6]

Wolfe argues, in Traces of History, that the structuring of different racial characteristics, based on different populations’ role within the colonial system of exploitation and land expropriation, was a central concern of European settler-colonial (and colonial) states.

Processes of identification, including racialisation, operate within categories structured by the state. By mobilising these categories the state is able to exercise control, distribute rights, and facilitate exploitation, expropriation and exclusion. It is in this tension between the attempted imposition by the state of those categories and the response – of rejection or acquiescence – by the identified, that identities emerge.

The analytical task then is to locate the processes of identification, its agents, and the ways in which the identified integrate, subvert, or reject the categories that they are being subjected to. It is to these tasks, in the case of Jewish communities in the West, that this paper now turns.


The European State, the Settler-colony, and Jewish Identity

The emergence of modern antisemitism – as opposed to pre-capitalist Christian judeophobia – can be traced back, much like the processes of racialisation discussed above, to the emergence of the nation-state. Indeed, as Enzo Traverso has pointed out, the emergence of the nation, unlike the multinational and multi-confessional empires that preceded it, ‘viewed every ethnic, linguistic or religious minority as an obstacle that it sought to overcome, by championing policies of assimilation or exclusion’.[7]

The need to unify the nation around a singular history, culture, religion, and/or language placed Jews decisively outside of the new emerging national body. More than that, it categorised the Jew as the enemy of the nation. The ‘international Jew’, always on the move within diasporic networks, neither constrained by the borders of the state nor loyal to the emerging nation, became the central theme of the emerging antisemitic propaganda of the late nineteenth century. It also captured the anxieties of European populations confronted with the rise of capitalism, rapid urbanisation, and the transformation of their livelihood through processes of primitive accumulation that separated them from the land.[8]

Similarly, Wolfe has argued that the emergence of the nation-state in Europe was accompanied by the creation of a ‘monolithic Jewishness’.[9] Whereas, feudal states had relied on so-called court Jews and their networks for finance and trade (see below), the promise of emancipation at the hands of the state that followed the French Revolution homogenised Jewish communities and in the process laid the basis for them to be, collectively, identified as external to the emerging nation. Wolfe places this contradictory process in the continuity of colonial classifications of Black populations in the United States:

In both cases, uniformity would come to be constructed genetically, as an ineradicable hereditary mystique, common to every member of the persecuted community; a collective though not always visible mark of Cain.  

The emergence of the nation-state, which placed the Jew firmly outside of its limits, was accompanied by the application of colonial processes of racialisation to explain this exclusion. The modern state then promised emancipation through assimilation within the nation, while simultaneously barring access to the national body for Jewish communities through their racialisation.

In the face of the emergence of these structures of identification from above, different political responses developed from within the Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe. On the one hand, a cultural conflict emerged between the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment), which argued for the full assimilation of Jews within the nation-state, and the orthodoxy that remained faithful to its cultural and religious traditions. On the other hand, political strife developed between the revolutionary traditions associated with Bolshevik, Bundist, Anarchist or reformist currents, which saw in the Jewish exclusion from the nation-state an internationalist potential for its very destruction, and the emerging Zionist movement. The Zionists, on which more below, argued that it was only with the creation of a Jewish nation-state, developed through colonisation, that the so-called Jewish question could be resolved, by ‘normalising’ Jewish life and joining the family of European nation-states.[10]

Much more could be said about these competing movements (see below), but for now it will suffice to point out that modern antisemitism emerged out of the formation of the nation-state, and that in response to the state’s exclusion and racialisation of Jewish populations a plethora of political, cultural and religious responses developed. There were then not one, but a multitude of processes of identification that emerged out of different, often competing, responses to the state’s structural categorisation of Jews.


Contemporary Debates on Jewish Identities and the Modern Monolith

The variety of responses to state-led structures of identification applied to Jewish communities is highly relevant to contemporary debates surrounding Jewishness. Indeed, Jewish identity is increasingly portrayed as monolithic, static and a-temporal within the Jewish community. For example, Mick Davies, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council in the UK, explained to the Home Affairs Committee that

Zionism is so totally identified with how the Jew thinks of himself, and is so associated with the right of the Jewish people to have their own country and to have self-determination within that country, that if you attack Zionism, you attack the very fundamentals of how the Jews believe in themselves.[11]

Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, propounds the same argument, put this time in religious terms:

Zionism has been an integral part of Judaism from the dawn of our faith. … We have prayed towards Israel. Open any prayer book and you will find Israel jumping out at you. It is the centre of what we are. As a result – further to a political development in the latter part of the 19th century through which Zionism gained an added dimension, spelling out the right of the Jewish people to live within secure borders with self-determination in their own country, which they had been absent from for 2,000 years – that is what Zionism is. If you are an anti-Zionist, you are anti everything I have just mentioned.[12]

This approach to Jewish identity, and therefore to antisemitism and the place of Jews within European society, stands in stark contrast to the discussion above about the origins of antisemitism in the European nation-state, and the multitude of different, and often opposed, responses to it from within the Jewish population. Indeed, if this reading of Jewishness and antisemitism is to be taken at face value, the revolutionary, assimilationist, and orthodox religious traditions within European Judaism, all of which rejected the colonial project of Zionist nation-building (for different reasons), should be considered within the realm of antisemitic thought and action. It appears that the approach to the process of identification carries important political significance.

Indeed, in his Judaïsme et Révolution, Ivan Segré argues that there exists a deep tug of war within the history of Jewish thought, both secular and religious. He identifies a tension between a revolutionary, universalist, and dialectical reading of Judaism and a counter-revolutionary, ethno-centrist, and static one. Segré argues that both in the religious and political field, from Maimonides to Benny Levy, there exists a strand of Jewish thought that struggles to fix its identity once and for all in a literal and a-historic space. To this he contrasts a dialectical reading of the Letter, associated with the sages of the Talmud and St Paul, which leads it to always re-invent and regenerate itself through contact with its surroundings. Segré argues for a return to a dialectical and – in his view – revolutionary reading of Jewish identity against the tide of reaction.

Similarly, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin straddles the religious and the political to challenge the dominant portrayal of Jewish identity. He points out that the view of the Jews as perpetually out of place in their host-societies, and therefore in need of returning to ‘where they came from’, is in fact a judeophobic Christian concept exogenous to Jewish thought. Raz-Krakotzkin argues that before the advent of modern Zionism, exile was an existential claim in Jewish theology that could not be solved physically. Indeed, he points out that ‘[t]he Jewish communities that lived in Palestine before Zionism described themselves as “in exile in the land of Israel”’.[13] In this reading, contrary to Rabbi Mirvis’s view, the history of a people perpetually out of place and the idea of a physical return appear as modern constructs of a Jewish identity shaped by the political necessities of the Zionist project.

However, statistical data collected both in the US and the UK points to the fact that Mirvis and Davies are not alone in positing the centrality of the state of Israel to the formation of Jewish identity. For example, 93% of British Jews feel that ‘Israel plays some role in/is important to/is central to [their] Jewish identity’,[14] and 69% of US Jews feel ‘emotionally attached to Israel’.[15]

This raises a series of questions about Jewish communities in the West: what are the processes of identification, from above and below, that have taken place, which can help explain the emergence of what appears to be the increasingly monolithic understanding of Jewishness? Does the space for conflicting identities still exist or has it truly been narrowed down to an increasingly single one? And what are the political ramifications of these processes for anti-racist political action today?

It is to these questions that the paper now turns, by discussing the development of Jewish identification by Western states and their responses throughout the last century.


Marxism and the Jewish Question

The classical Marxist tradition was the first to develop a materialist framework to analyse what it has called the Jewish question: the reasons behind the survival of Judaism for thousands of years despite its existence as a minority faith in starkly different societies, and the rise of modern antisemitism in the nineteenth century.

Much of the literature on the question had relied on idealist or teleological assumptions about the strength of the Jewish faith, Messianic expectations, or the yearning for an eventual ‘return’ to the Promised Land. At the same time, antisemitism was understood as an a-historical and universal reality, present at all times, and located within competing religious frameworks (see above). In this view, Jews were an essentialised people, always foreign to, and rejected by, the host society, who survived by clinging to their faith or nationhood in the expectation of – secular or miraculous – liberation. An approach, rooted in Christian Judeophobic prejudice, which, as discussed above, remains present to this day.

In stark contrast to this approach, Marx put forward a framework of analysis that understood the Jewish people – like other peoples – as continuously made and re-made by history and the prevailing economic and political structures within which they operate. In his famous essay On the Jewish Question, this approach is summarised in the simple statement that ‘Judaism continues to exist not in spite of history, but owing to history. The Jew is perpetually created by civil society from its own entrails’.[16] The longevity of Judaism, for Marx, is neither an aberration of history nor a miraculous feat; it is the product of specific historical processes.

Through the economic and political roles they played in these societies, based on mercantile activity and money-lending, Jews were preserved as an entity separate from the rest of society. Although widely criticised for the language he used,[17] Marx’s approach to the Jewish question put forward the beginning of a materialist analysis of Jewish history and modern antisemitism, while simultaneously arguing for the need to struggle against it.

Marx’s thesis was developed further by Abram Leon, a young Jewish Marxist writing in hiding in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Leon’s The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation expanded, detailed and developed Marx’s basic insights into the history of the Jewish people and the realities of modernantisemitism. Echoing Marx, Leon argued that

It is not the loyalty of the Jews to their faith which explains their preservation as a distinct social group; on the contrary it is their preservation as a distinct social group which explains their attachment to their faith.[18]

He developed the idea that for the majority of their history, Jewish people constituted a people-class, which reproduced itself through their specific economic roles within the different societies they inhabited. Jews were therefore not a foreign entity within these societies, but an integral part of their socio-economic organisation.

The advent of capitalism was to be, in Leon’s work, the historic period during which the economic tasks previously reserved to the Jewish people-class became universal. Mercantile and financial activity moved from the periphery to the centre of the economy. The economic base for the historic survival of Judaism was disappearing and Jews were being assimilated in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe however, where the decay of feudalism and the rise of capitalism were held in a lasting balance, Jews were trapped between semi-proletarianisation and emigration. As they emigrated to the West, they brought with them a Jewish reality, which had, Leon argued, by and large disappeared in those countries. The new bourgeois order rejected them.[19]

These approaches, by Marx and Leon, as well as by others in the classical Marxist tradition, from Kautsky to Trotsky, have been criticised more recently for their over-emphasis of the economic unity of Jewish communities and the economic nature of the Jewish question. What remains from their contribution, however, is their emphasis on the material basis that generated a Jewish identity as opposed to a set, pre-existing, and naturalised one.

For example, Maxime Rodinson[20] pointed out that there was little evidence for the validity of Leon’s people-class argument before the period of the Crusades. More significantly, in his The Marxists and the Jewish Question, Enzo Traverso argues that the classical Marxist tradition’s economism in addressing the Jewish question led it to develop major blind spots: an over-emphasis on class over people in the people-class formulation, and an exaggeratedly economistic approach to historicising Jewishness andantisemitism.

Classical Marxism therefore also assumed that the elimination of the economic specificity and ghettoisation of Jewish communities would lead both to full assimilation into the surrounding population and the disappearance of antisemitism. Traverso wrote:

Leon remained the prisoner of a vision of assimilation inherited from the Enlightenment, which did not interpret the entry of the Jews into the modern world as a metamorphosis of Judaism, but quite simply as the annulation of Jewish otherness.[21]

Indeed, the economism of the classical Marxists blinded them to the differing political realities of Jewish populations in Europe.

In the East, the tearing-down of the Ghetto walls, the development of economic centres, and the proletarianisation of the Jewish masses in the towns and cities of the Pale of settlements – roughly the area covering modern Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine, where nearly half of the world’s Jewish population lived at the turn of the twentieth century – did not lead to assimilation.

On the contrary, the Eastern-European Jewish masses developed simultaneously a class and a national consciousness which gave birth to a Yiddish revival as well as to the Bund, a mass Jewish workers’ organisation that would play a central role in the development of Russian Social Democracy.[22]

In the West, where the Enlightenment and the French Revolution had promised emancipation and equal rights as citizens to the Jews, the situation was reversed. Jewish communities tended to try to assimilate. They spoke the national language, and participated in the intellectual, cultural and official institutions of the nation.

Whether atheist or religious, they tended to enact the words of the poet Yehuda Leib Gordon, which became a slogan for the Haskalah: ‘Be a Jew at home and a man in the street.’ However, this process did not lead to the disappearance of antisemitism. In fact, quite the contrary was true and the emerging state played a key role in this process (see above).

Indeed, it was Tsarist antisemitic decrees that concentrated Jews in the Pale. This concentration made the development of a national feeling, based on a shared language, culture and geographical area possible.[23] Similarly, as discussed above, it was the collapse of the old empires and the rise of the nation-state which posed the Jewish question in the West around suspicions of split loyalties, and accusations of a Jewish identity lying beyond the boundaries of newly-constructed national myths of origin. Finally, the barriers to Jewish land-ownership, enforced by the state, concentrated Jews disproportionately in towns and cities, locating them at the heart of the newly-emerging capitalist order.

The classical Marxist tradition then made an important contribution by highlighting the material processes of Jewish identification, and modern antisemitism. It was however unable to reach the full breadth of its own method because of its excessive focus on economic processes and its acceptance of the Enlightenment’s promise of assimilation. These adjustments are crucial to understanding the formation of modern Jewish identification and the resurgence of antisemitism, as discussed below.


The Nazi Genocide, Zionism and Denied Assimilation  

The classical Marxist debates on the Jewish question took place before the two key events that shaped Western Jewish life decisively in the second half of the twentieth century: the Nazi genocide and the creation of the State of Israel. Both these events ushered in monumental changes in the make-up, location, and politics of Jewish communities across the world. In the space of little more than a decade: 6 million Jews were exterminated in the gas chambers; the Israeli state was founded after the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians; the majority of Holocaust survivors moved to Israel; in the 1950s, Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa relocated to Israel, through migration and expulsion.

The centres of Jewish life shifted in this period toward the United States and the newly-formed state. These events, and European, American and Israeli state-responses to them, continue to structure Jewish identification in the West.

Contemporary polls, for example, of Western and Israeli Jews find that both the Holocaust and Israel remain some of the key issues cited as central to the construction of their identity.[24] This, however, as discussed above, has not always been the case.


Jewish Identification and the State of Israel

The creation of Israel, and its future, depended on the so-called ingathering of the world’s Jewish communities. The newly-formed state therefore worked actively to encourage and disseminate its vision of Jewish peoplehood. It did so both legislatively and practically. From its creation, the Israeli state immediately officialised its vision of history. It declared itself the state not of its citizens, but of the Jewish people around the world. The Israeli Declaration of Establishment, approved on 14 May 1948, states:

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the [Jewish] people kept faith … throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom. ... This right [to a Jewish state] is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State. … We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.[25]

Two years later, the Knesset approved what it called the ‘Law of Return’, which guaranteed the right of Jews worldwide to settle in the newly-formed state and to enjoy the full rights of citizens. Palestinian refugees who had fled during the Nakba, however, were forbidden to come back to their homes.

The ‘ingathering’ was not only a legal process inside of Israel; it was also a political one across the world. While encouraging Western Jewry to support Israel economically, politically and culturally, the Israeli state worked to encourage the emigration of Jewish communities, from Morocco to Iraq, and from the Soviet Union to Ethiopia.

Often assisted by the antisemitism of the local regimes,[26] the young state did not hesitate to sanction terrorism against Jewish minorities in Iraq to accelerate their departure and convince the reluctant.[27] The European character of the Zionist project and the treatment of Mizrahi (Eastern/Oriental) Jews as second-class citizens by the Israeli state have been widely documented.[28] However, the need to find new Jewish populations to settle the land in the demographic war with the Palestinians went hand-in-hand with the need to validate the state’s claims as the representative of world Jewry.

Interestingly, the settlement of Jewish communities from Asia, Africa and Europe with different languages, traditions and cultures had a contradictory effect on Zionism. If they strengthened the state’s representative claims they also undermined its conception of a singular Jewish ethnicity.

As the Israeli Marxist Akiva Orr has argued, Israel has struggled since its inception to develop a secular Jewish identity, separate from religion.[29] Orr points out that, despite the avowedly atheist (even anti-religious) attitudes of the founding generations of the Zionist movement, the state remains dependent on religion for the construction of a unified Jewish identity.

Orr argues that the central role played by the rabbinate in key state matters, such as the decision concerning who is and isn’t Jewish – and therefore a potential citizen – or in the regulation of marriage, are not pragmatic concessions to religious voting-blocks in Israel but indispensable in the process of constructing a unified Jewish identity.

Others, such as Moshe Machover,[30] echoing certain arguments made by the revisionist Canaanite school in the 1940s, argue for the decoupling of Israel from the rest of world Jewry and the recognition of a Hebrew nationality and identity. Machover sees in this a stepping-stone toward de-Zionification, weakening the settler-colonial project by cutting it off from its source of new arrivals. It would, Machover argues, also lay the foundation for the recognition of Hebrew national rights in a free Palestine.

The identification of Jews as a unified population, in physical exile, in need of ingathering to Israel, plays a crucial ideological role for the Israeli state and the expansion of settler-colonialism in Palestine.

Rodinson argued in the 1960s that the success of Zionism in Palestine had become the defining structural factor in modern Jewish life.[31] Zionism, for Rodinson, was born out of the simultaneous rejection of Jews by the European bourgeois order as well as the integration of its values and norms by the (European) Jewish people themselves. The scale of the Nazi genocide and the destruction of (often revolutionary) European-Jewish alternative movements to Zionism hastened the development of this process among postwar European Jewry.

Rodinson, in an argument which echoes Edward Said’s, identified Zionism as a European colonial movement, which turned the pariahs of the metropolis into a settler-colonial avant-garde. It was in the process of dispossessing the indigenous Palestinian population that the Zionist movement became the representative in the Middle East of the very society that had rejected them and led them to the brink of extermination.

Just as Zionism was the outcome of simultaneous rejection and internalisation, the Jews themselves were both internalised and rejected by the West through Zionist expansion in Palestine.

Rodinson opposed the way in which Zionism generated a political pressure from above in France for the essentialisation of the Jewish community in the West:

A continuous moral and physical blackmail is applied against the Jews who refuse to consider themselves members of a separate community to which they should swear allegiance. They are expected to adhere to options taken on Palestinian lands by organs on which they have no control.[32] 

This, Rodinson argued, started a process of nationalisation of the Jewish people.

However, if, as shown above, the Zionist movement and the Israeli state actively encouraged this attempt at nationalising world Jewry in the service of its settler-colonial project in Palestine, it does not automatically follow that Jewish communities would accept and respond to this new identification.

Here, the role of the state is once again paramount. In his book, Knowing Too Much, Norman Finkelstein details the ways in which the relationship between American Jewish communities and Israel developed. He shows how the leadership of the American Jewish community did not – despite humanitarian or philanthropic monetary donations – support Israel politically before the 1967 war.

Finkelstein quotes, amongst other documents, a study conducted by the American Jewish Committee only a few months before the outbreak of the war, which concluded that American Jewish life and institutions were not connected to Israel, and that only 17% of American Jews were members of avowedly pro-Israel organisations.[33] Finkelstein argues that the main concern of Jewish communities in the US in the direct aftermath of the Second World War was assimilation into American life and that active political support for Israel was considered by the community’s leadership to be a display of ‘dual-loyalty’. This, they feared, would stoke up suspicion and halt the process of integration.

It was in fact in the wake of the 1967 war and the decisive shift of Israel into the US sphere of influence – and of the US’s changing strategy in the Middle East, away from appeasement of Arab Nationalism – that American Jewish organs became outspoken supporters of Zionism. It is, therefore, firstly as loyal American citizens rather than as members of a singular Jewish nationality that the representatives of the American Jewish community became supporters of the Zionist movement and the Israeli state. Finkelstein writes:

Israel came to incarnate for American Jewish intellectuals the high cause of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, to which they could now assert a unique connection by virtue of blood lineage. Joining the Zionist club was a prudent career move for Jewish communal leaders who could then play the role of key interlocutors between the US and its strategic asset. … These gung-ho Zionists didn’t even subscribe to the Zionist tenet that Jews had no future in the gentile world. On the contrary, they converted to Zionism because it facilitated their acceptance in the United States.[34]


Jewish Identification and the Official Memory of the Nazi Genocide 

A similar process took place in terms of the commemoration of the Nazi genocide. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the remembrance of the gas chambers and the Nazi genocide did not play a central role in Western societies. Different explanations have been given for this. Finkelstein has stressed the postwar US-led drive to ‘de-Nazify’ West Germany and to remobilise former Nazi state-officials in the cold war, as a key reason for the muted nature of official recognition of the genocide.[35]|[36]

Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life has stressed the assimilationist strategies of the Jewish community in the 1950s and the fears of stoking the flames ofantisemitism. While Traverso, on the other hand, emphasises that official ceremonies focussed on the national and anti-fascist character of the resistance in the first decades after the war – as such the ‘symbol of Nazi barbarity was not Auschwitz but Buchenwald, where so many antifascists were murdered’.[37]

In Israel itself, Holocaust survivors were often met with animosity.[38] They represented the weakness of the diaspora that had ‘gone like sheep to slaughter’, which the ‘new Jew’, reborn in Israel and strong, would replace. A popular term of derision for those survivors in Hebrew slang was sabonim – soaps – a reference to the Nazis’ experiments to turn Jewish fat into soap.

The Eichmann trial in 1961 was a turning-point in the dominant discourse about the war. Both in Israel and across the Western world, the recognition of the Nazi genocide, as well as the centrality of the remembrance of it in collective ceremonies, finds its roots in that moment. Traverso describes this shift as a crucial one in the collective memory and understanding of History of (and in) the West: ‘Nazi extermination was no longer regarded as the expression of a retreat of civilisation into barbarism, but rather as a barbarism inscribed in modernity itself’.[39]

Never Again became an international watchword against the demons within Western society. Traverso describes the process through which the Nazi genocide became what he terms, using Rousseau, a Civil Religion – a secular form of sacralising certain aspects of history in order to build a collective identity around the state. With its monuments, national museums, laws forbidding its denial, and official ceremonies, the memory of the Holocaust has become a key pillar of Western societies’ projection of self and collective identity.

Traverso argues that this laid the foundation for the recognition of other genocides and massacres across the world, whilst at the same time risking de-politicising the memory of the Holocaust and mobilising it as a shield behind which to mask more contemporary crimes: ‘Institutionalised and neutralised, the memory of the Holocaust thus risks becoming the moral sanction for a Western order that perpetuates oppression and injustice’.[40]

Similarly, Finkelstein describes in The Holocaust Industry an industry that has developed around the memorialisation of the Holocaust, which has depoliticised it by making it an inexplicable and incomparable event, next to which all others pale into insignificance. Finkelstein argues that this process has emptied collective memory of its political lessons, allowed collaborating governments and corporations off the hook, and strengthened the vision of Jewish history as one marked by eternal, a-historic, and incrementally severe persecution.

This version of history, Finkelstein argues, has also facilitated the use of the Holocaust to justify the colonisation of Palestine by allowing Western powers to wash their hands of the past by simply supporting Israel and – by extension – their own interests in the Middle East.

Yitzhak Laor, the Israeli poet and author, also emphasises the role that this official history of the Holocaust plays for the whitewashing of Western states’ racism and crimes – both in the present and in the past:

The Holocaust alone can provide the definition of evil. … But the other evils are still lurking there. The universal dimension of the genocide is projected to overshadow the victims of colonialism and slavery, who have received no compensation remotely comparable to the sums paid to the Israeli state, nor even the fortune of being recognised, precisely because they are still living in devastated countries, or miserable neighbourhoods, under occupation or oppression.[41]

Jewish history and the Nazi genocide are brought to the centre of modern constructions of Western identity and the legitimisation of Western states. However, it is a depoliticised, a-historical, and sterilised version of history, which locks Jews into a specific historic role.

There is once again a trade-off: in order to access the recognition of past wrongs, Jewish communities must relinquish demands for structural justice, and accept that the mass murder of their ancestors be removed from historical and political analysis. Instead, commemoration is turned into a tool behind which Western states can acknowledge and condemn racism, violence, and collaboration, while continuing to mete these out against other communities and countries.

Jews can then become part of a Western hegemonic culture, which has recently discovered itself to be Judeo-Christian only a few decades after the Nazi genocide, on the condition that their history becomes a pillar of the state’s official history, rather than a boulder to bring it tumbling down. Jewish communities must accept the role of guardians of a distorted history, which leaves current power structures untouched and unchallenged, in order to accede to the promise ofNever Again. Assimilation is promised, while effectively denied.

It emerges from this overview that the process of Jewish identification in the second half of the twentieth century has been constructed around the Nazi genocide and Zionism, within a state-led framework that has both placed Jews at the centre of Western hegemony while simultaneously keeping them at arm’s length of full integration. The Jewish community is then pushed into a schizophrenic dance in which it must simultaneously represent key areas of Western identification, while being denied full integration within its structures.

Far from being an intrinsic and a-historic fact, the current identification of Jewish communities with Israel, and the importance accorded to the Holocaust in their sense of self, is in fact the outcome of half a century of Western state policies. Indeed, political support for Israel in the Middle East by European and North Americans states, and the centrality of the Holocaust in their official historical self-representation, have switched the structures of identification for Jews in the West. Once upon a time the ‘Other’ of the European states par excellence, Jewish communities are now being identified as the standard-bearers of two key pillars of Western policies at home and abroad. It is to a discussion of the political consequences of this process, that this paper now turns.


Mobilisation of the Jew against the European ‘Others’ 

Sartre famously wrote that ‘it is not the Jewish character that provokes antisemitism but, on the contrary, the antisemite that creates the Jew’.[42] It then should not be a surprise that a growing proportion of Jewish people understand Zionism and a particular history of the Holocaust as a central part of their identity (see above). Indeed, they are being identified as Jewish through the prism of this binary framework by Western states.

The essentialisation of Jews, at home and abroad, by the state creates a new form of antisemitic rejection. No longer the rootless cosmopolitan, the revolutionary, the internationalist, the Jew today is identified, in the first instance, as – at least potentially – a Zionist, a citizen of Israel, and defender of the ‘West’s values’ in the face of barbarism. No longer the potential destroyer of Western society and bourgeois values but its most fierce protector, antisemitic essentialisation paints the Jew in a seemingly positive light. The underlying logic, however, remains one of a top-down structuring of Jewish identification by the Western state.

Antisemitism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century served to channel class struggle away from the bourgeoisie towards the Jews, while simultaneously making the revolutionary movement suspect and facilitating repression. It was, as the German phrase put it, the socialism of fools.[43] Today, it serves to obscure state policies, while simultaneously reinforcing Islamophobic reaction.

Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan argue:

The aim is to convince people that there is an underlying unity between the support given to the struggle of the Israelis against Arab ‘fundamentalist’ barbarism, and the struggle at home against the young barbarians of the banlieues – whose ‘barbarian’ description is well attested to by the double fact that they are not only Arab or Muslim, but also criticise Israeli government policy.[44]

This process of essentialisation of Jewish people is reinforced from above, through official state policy. For example, the UK HAC report on antisemitism announced:

Those claiming to be ‘anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic’, should do so in the knowledge that 59% of British Jewish people consider themselves to be Zionists. … For the purposes of criminal or disciplinary investigations, use of the words ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zio’ in an accusatory or abusive context should be considered inflammatory and potentially antisemitic.[45]

The report takes as read that the political movement of Zionism, and the Jewish people, should be considered, in the sphere of law-making, as nearly interchangeable. The 41 per cent of British Jewish people who do not consider themselves to be Zionists, according to the report’s own sources, are not considered relevant to the development of effective policy to combat antisemitism.

Nor is the fact that most data shows that a younger generation of Jews in the West is increasingly critical of Israel.[46] A recent piece of research conducted by the National Union of Students and the Union of Jewish Students in the UK found that 24% of Jewish students supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel.[47] Yet, under the guidance of the British state, these positions, held by a considerable proportion of Jews, are dangerously close to antisemitism.

Jews are essentialised by the UK Home Affairs Committee as adherents to the only political movement ascribed to them – Zionism – regardless of the facts. Similarly, when the British government attempted to limit local councils’ right to implement boycott or divestment policies, it justified its actions through concern for ‘international security’ and ‘community cohesion’, and went on to state:

There are wider national and international consequences from imposing such local level boycotts. They can damage integration and community cohesion within the United Kingdom, hinder Britain’s export trade, and harm foreign relations to the detriment of Britain’s economic and international security.[48]

Jewish communities in Britain are being directly mobilised as a shield, behind which the government can hide to defend its own trade and international-policy choices, while also undermining political freedoms in the UK. To complete the picture, the government minister Matthew Hancock announced these measures while on an official visit to Israel.

Furthermore, the British government’s anti-radicalisation strategy, the Prevent agenda, which has made it a legal duty for public-sector workers to report service-users for signs of radicalisation, follows this pattern. The policy sets out a series of indicators of so-called non-violent extremist ideas and behaviours, which the government believes lead to ‘extremism’. The policy has been widely criticised for its ineffectiveness, unsubstantiated assumptions, and disproportionate targeting of the Muslim community.[49] Indeed, Muslims made up 56 per cent of those targeted between 2012 and 2014, despite making up less than 5 per cent of the British population.[50]

Leaked Prevent training materials show that participants are specifically encouraged to target those who criticise UK foreign policy, with a specific emphasis put on Palestine solidarity as an indicator of radicalisation. It states, for example, that ‘as recent stories involving vulnerable pupils have shown, issues around Palestine, Syria and the growth of ISIL/ISIS require careful monitoring’.[51] This approach has led to Palestine activists and students expressing an interest in the question being referred to the authorities.

The case of a 15-year-old Muslim school student in Luton, who was repeatedly interrogated under Prevent for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ armband and organising a fundraiser for Palestinian children affected by war, is a case in point.[52] Support for Palestine, including from children, is identified as a threat to the state. The state’s support for Zionism abroad becomes a tool for Islamophobic oppression at home, and to undermine civil liberties more generally.

It is, then, interesting in this context that Jewish organisations, publications and leading community figures are putting forward an analysis which holds that contemporary antisemitism, while no longer structural, is the outcome of left-wing and Muslim activism. The Palestine solidarity movement, anti-Zionist politics, and support for the Boycott, Solidarity and Sanctions (BDS) movement are particularly singled out for criticism and accused of actively undermining Jewish self-determination, the right for Jews to self-define their oppression, or Jewish identity itself.

In the UK, for example, when giving evidence to the HAC, discussed above, Rabbi Mirvis declared that:

There was a time when [antisemitism] came from the far right; now increasingly it is coming from the far left. There is an element of radical Islam that is part of this narrative. Events in the Middle East serve as trigger points.[53]  

Jonathan Arkush, President of the Board of Deputies (BoD), made similar points:

Traditionally antisemitism has come from the far right, and we are not seeing very much far right activity at the moment. Traditionally there has always been prejudice against Jews coming from the far left as well, and I think that with the advent of a more leftward tilt in the leadership of the Labour party, some people feel that a space has opened up for them … A significant part of the incidents come from people who are or who appear to be from areas in Muslim communities. I want to emphasise that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims … are moderate and law abiding, … but there are some quarters who are very prejudiced, and I think they may get information … through mosques, schools, literature or Muslim subscription TV channels of an extreme nature coming from abroad.[54] 

The problem is no longer the far right but Muslims and the left, under foreign influence.

Remarkably, all available information about the UK – including the Annual CST Report on antisemitism[55] and the HAC report itself – demonstrates that the vast majority of antisemitic incidents come from the far-right and fascist groups, or prejudiced white individuals. This points to a high level of identification by leading representatives of the Jewish community with the state’s essentialisation of Jewishness under the banner of Zionism, mobilised against racialised communities and critics of the state’s foreign policy.

The state supports Israeli policies and expansion abroad. It justifies this support not on the basis of its economic and political interests in the Middle East, but through the supposed intrinsic role of Zionism in the religious and cultural identity of Jews. Simultaneously, the state criminalises political action and targets Palestinian solidarity movements. This can then be justified both through equating Judaism and Zionism, and through the baseless position, discussed above, that Muslims are the modern source of antisemitism.

The state then appears not as the oppressor of both Jews and Muslims, identifying both communities through racialised and essentialising structures, but as the defender of the Jews – understood, by official policy, as Zionists – against Muslims and the left. The state erects the Jewish community as a shield behind which it hides the political motives of its foreign and domestic policy.



Starting from the position that identity is not static or primordial, but generated through the relationship between identification processes by state structures from above, and collective responses by the ‘identified’ from below, this paper has discussed the identification of Jewish communities by Western states. It has argued that in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Western Jewish communities have been defined by the state as an extension of its own legitimacy, and the fate of Israeli settler-colonialism in Palestine. This process of essentialisation of the Jewish people is a form of structural antisemitism, which attempts to impose a specific, politicised, identity upon an entire community.

Moreover, this paper has argued that an approach based on processes of identity-formation, rather than monolithic, pre-existing, and a-historical identities, has important consequences. When, for example, polls show that a large majority of UK and US Jews feel connected to Israel, one answer is to consider these feelings as defining an immutable reality. Another is, as this paper has attempted to show, to take these feelings as the starting-point of an analysis which uncovers historical and societal processes of identification, which develop through the tension generated between those people and the state.

These two different approaches also lead to different political consequences. If the politics of identity lead one to consider identity as originating in the individual, one risks fixing as natural the outcomes of specific and historically-contentious processes. This leads, in the case of Jewishness, one to accept that Zionism is no longer a political question, which plays itself out to the detriment of the Palestinian people, but a question of self-defined identity, central to the very essence of Judaism and Jewish people. It similarly leads one to assume that the state, through its official remembering of the Nazi genocide and its laws against antisemitism, is the protector of Jewish communities, rather than the very structure putting them at risk.

It equally leads to the belief that those activists who oppose colonial processes in Palestine, condemn Israeli human-rights violations, and campaign for an end to their states’ and institutions’ complicity with these processes, are the real antisemites despite – or sometimes even because of – their consistent refusal to equate Jewish people worldwide with the actions, politics and realities of Israel and the Zionist movement. Indeed, as discussed above, if Jewish identity is inextricably linked to Israel and Zionism, then any rejection of it has to be, either consciously or unconsciously, an attack on Jewish identity itself.

However, if one starts from the experience of identity in order to initiate a process of uncovering the specific historical, political and economic factors that construct it, it becomes possible to imagine ways to challenge the structures out of which identities emerge. Liberation is then understood as a process of transformation both of structural and individual circumstances.

Identity, when understood as the outcome of discreet social realities, can be studied as a flexible and ever-changing concept. In this case, the materialist approach to the Jewish question, discussed above, leads to an understanding of how the Civil Religion of the Holocaust and Zionism have played a crucial role, both practically and ideologically, in reinforcing Western colonial expansion abroad, and racism at home.

Jews are essentialised under the banner of Zionism and turned into either active participants of colonisation or shields for state-policy at home and abroad. The duo of Zionism and official remembrance of the Nazi genocide is the contemporary form of the rejection of Jewish people from Western states, which has positioned them – once more – in the firing-line.

It follows from this analysis that a modern struggle for the destruction of antisemitism, far from relying on the state, must pass through the struggle against racism, imperialism, and the state structures that champion them.

It is then not useful to declare, as Rodinson did, that ‘[w]e can at least ask the Jews to not place themselves in the wrong camp or halt the struggle [for a society free of oppression and exploitation]’.[56] This approach accepts – despite his own analysis – that Jewish people have become irremediably homogenised under the influence of Zionism, and benefit from its actions. Furthermore, the evidence, as discussed above, is that this is increasingly challenged from within the Jewish community itself.

It must be demonstrated both in theory and practice that the struggle against antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Western intervention abroad are one and the same. Therefore the struggle for Palestinian liberation and against Zionism is indeed related to antisemitism, but not in the way that it is so often presented. Houria Bouteldja makes this point, when she writes, as an invitation to Jewish communities in France: ‘You are still in the ghetto. What if we got out of it together?’[57]



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* I would like to thank Amelia Horgan, Hannah Dee, Yvon Englert, James Eastwood, Malia Bouattia, Ashok Kumar, Noha Abou El Magd, and Karma Nabulsi as well as the anonymous reviewers, for their comments and advice in the drafting of this paper. All remaining shortcomings are, of course, mine and mine alone. 

[1] Hall 1996, pp. 2–3.

[2] Grossberg 1996, p. 99.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brubaker and Cooper 2000, p. 16.

[5] Chakravarty and Ferreira da Silva 2012, pp. 369–70. [No such reference in bibliography – MC]

[6] Wolfe 2016, p. 5

[7] Traverso 2016, p. 10.

[8] Traverso 2016, pp. 7–19.

[9] Wolfe 2016, p. 86.

[10] For more detail on these conflicts and different movements, see, for example, Jacobs (ed.) 2001; Frankel 2009; Traverso 2016.

[11] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2016, Q13.

[12] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2016, Q418.

[13] Raz-Krakotzkin 2007, p. 109.

[14] Miller, Harris and Shindler 2015, p. 15.

[15] Pew Research Center 2013.

[16] Marx 1844.

[17] For a detailed historical discussion of the contradiction involved in the use of antisemitic language in the process of arguing against antisemitic politics in Marx, see Hal Draper’s Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype (Draper 1977).

[18] Leon 1942.

[19] Others, beyond the Marxist tradition, have adopted a similar outlook on the relationship between the rise of capitalism and Jewish communities. Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century argues, for example, that the advent of capitalism represents the universalisation of historically Jewish socio-economic roles (Slezkine 2006), while, on the other side of the political spectrum, Niall Ferguson argues that the development of modern capitalism cannot be understood without an analysis of the rise of the house of Rothschild and their financial and trade networks across Europe (Ferguson 1999).

[20] Rodinson 1968.

[21] Traverso 1994, p. 224.

[22] For more on the Bund and its approaches to the National Question, see Jacobs (ed.) 2001. For a summary of the Bundist and Austro-Hungarian Marxists’ contribution to the debate on the Jewish question, see Traverso 1994.

[23] Frankel 2009.

[24] Miller, Harris and Shindler 2015; Pew Research Center 2013; Pew Research Center 2016.

[25] Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2013.

[26] Behar 1997.

[27] Shiblack 1986; Giladi 2006.

[28] Ben-Dor Benite 1997; Chitrit 1997 [No such reference in bibliography – MC]; Shohat 1988.

[29] Orr 1983.

[30] Machover 2013.

[31] Rodinson 1968.

[32] Rodinson 1968, p. 179

[33] Finkelstein 2012, pp. 35–44.

[34] Finkelstein 2012, p. 42; emphasis in the original.

[35] In this context, official reparations from the German government paid to Israel allowed for justice to appear as having been served, while avoiding fundamental structural changes, and financing the Western ‘watch-dog’ in the Middle East.

[36] Finkelstein 2000.

[37] Traverso 2016, p. 117.

[38] Laor 2009.

[39] Traverso 2016, p. 118.

[40] Traverso 2016, pp. 126–7.

[41] Laor 2009, pp. 32–3.

[42] Sartre 2011, p. 152.

[43] This phrase is often attributed to August Babel. There is, however, no evidence that this is indeed the case. It appears that it was a common saying within German socialist circles in the late nineteenth century.

[44] Badiou, Hazan and Segré 2013, p. 15.

[45] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2016.

[46] Finkelstein 2012; Miller, Harris and Shindler 2015; Pew Research Center 2016.

[47] National Union of Students 2017, p. 26.

[48] Quoted in Stone 2016.

[49] Open Society Foundation 2016.

[50] National Police Chiefs’ Council 2014.

[51] Quoted in Hooper 2016.

[52] Open Society Foundation 2016, pp. 86–9.

[53] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2016, Q430.

[54] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2016, Q2.

[55] Community Security Trust 2017.

[56] Rodinson 1968, p. 181.

[57] Bouteldja 2016, p. 69.