What causes antisemitism? It’s a question not often asked by a media class obsessed with politicians’ use of language, and not their actual policies. It also implies a long view of history. But it’s a question we must ask if we are determined to reduce this horrible prejudice. Then, we could ask what party in the upcoming UK General Election has the policies needed to reduce antisemitism… which, it turns out, is Labour.
Antisemitism is a societal problem that isn’t confined to one party. It must, and will, be fought root and branch by any Labour government. Helpfully, their policies of social protection and wealth redistribution are likely to reduce the marginalisation and scapegoating of Jewish people. Here’s why.
Antisemitism importantly involves marginalisation and scapegoating due to a hateful perception of Jewish people on the basis of certain stereotypes. But why is anyone scapegoated and marginalised in the first place? The evidence points to two causes: disunity, and inequality.
By disunity, I mean two things: interstate disunity, and state-market disunity. Interstate disunity means separation of power between states. State-market disunity means separation of power between states and markets. When there is only one state, or a balance of power among states, there is state unity or interstate unity. When there are many states, or an imbalance of power among states, there is interstate disunity. When markets are ‘embedded’ in the state, there is state-market unity. When markets are ‘disembedded’ from the state, meaning they are determined by private interests more than they are by public interests, there is state-market disunity. But why does disunity cause antisemitism?
When states are separated from one another (‘interstate disunity’), they compete with one another for power, because they can’t guarantee their security. To do this, they construct legitimation stories to tell citizens (particularly rich ones) why they should follow the sovereign. While the Roman empire lacked nearby competitors during its height from the first century BCE to the second century CE, the Seleucid empire was constantly at risk of attack, such as from the Parthians. This meant the Seleucid king needed to tell his people what was going wrong, and why victory was never guaranteed. His advisors decided in 133 BCE that one cause was Judea—and, in particular, Jewish people, who his advisors claimed deserved to be destroyed due to their self-chosen isolation from ‘the rest of humanity’. Rome, however, may have sent orders to the Seleucid king that ‘no injury be done to the Jews’, as one document from the Pergamene archive suggests. Rome had its own problems with Judea once it had occupied the territory, and brutally put down the revolt of 70 CE by destroying the temple at Jerusalem. But there isn’t evidence that Rome treated Jewish people significantly differently from other minorities: for Rome, the priority was domestic security. For the Seleucids, the priority was security from foreign enemies—something which selected for antisemitic marginalisation more strongly than Roman unity did.
After the fall of Rome, no pluralistic empire rose to govern Europe as a whole. Instead, as the Middle Ages came to a close and wage labour started to displace other forms of labour, ‘nation-states’ became the typical basis of political organisation in Europe. Competition among states provided perverse incentives to thicken the legitimation stories on which states were based. African emperors like Septimius Severus ruled ancient Rome. But with the dawn of nation-states came the dawn of modern ‘scientific’ racism, based on fictions about radical biological difference among social groups. Nation-states legitimated themselves on the basis of ‘natio’—or birth. Some people were excluded. Some Jewish people certainly were–elevated to stable positions in state finance once the ruling class became occupied by commerce over politics, before being cast aside to a newly marginal status once the bourgeoisie returned to politics in the late 1800s. Interstate disunity among nation-states exacerbated antisemitic marginalisation. State-market disunity led to scapegoating.
While markets in ancient Rome were ‘embedded’ in the state—governed by rules dictated by political needs—in modern Europe the market started heavily influencing the state itself. The market became ‘disembedded’ from the state as capitalism wore on, with rising competition between states being supplemented by competition between corporations. Though the East India Company was nationalised in 1858 as the rich took to imperial politics in states, markets continued to become more and more integrated, even as states remained separate. Economic integration plus political separation generated a structural contradiction which led to profound crises such as the 1873 financial crisis, the commodity crises of late 1880s and 1890s, and the New York stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Each crisis was followed by moments of scapegoating. An example is the Dreyfus Affair of 1894 onwards, when Jewish French officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of espionage for Germany, leading to a national cleavage between the ‘Dreyfusards’ and ‘anti-Dreyfusards’. Such antisemitic scapegoating follows the economic downturns and crises of state legitimacy that always break out in disunified systems. Politico-economic disunity was the trigger, and political disunity the long-term cause, of the Dreyfus Affair. But disunity isn’t the only cause of antisemitism. Inequality also is.
The Great Depression immiserated Germans to such an extent that Weimar democracy became increasingly illegitimate in their eyes. Faced with a choice between the centrist social democrats, the communists, and the Nazi fascists, voters were split—but a plurality eventually voted Nazi. This was enough to give Hitler the chance of seizing power—which he took, leading to antisemitic policies such as the Nuremberg laws, and eventually the Holocaust in which six million Jewish people were murdered by the Nazi regime. But why did the Great Depression happen in the first place? For one, inequality in Germany reached a decade peak in 1927, meaning the poor did not have sufficient purchasing power for the economy to revive quickly post-Depression. For another, banks and finance were deregulated by successive legislating drives in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1920s, leading to system collapse and the 1931 banking crisis. Inequality and disunity ultimately contributed to the tragic scapegoating, oppression, and murder of Jewish people.
More recently, the 2010s have seen an upsurge in antisemitism across Europe and the US. Hungary in particular is ruled by the administration of Viktor Orban, who has recently turned on philanthropic billionaire George Soros, who has Jewish family, claiming Soros is trying to undermine Hungarian values with his Central European University, which Orban has successfully forced out of the country. But Orban has been in power for a while. Why did he decide such blatantly antisemitic scapegoating was politically expedient? One cause is the austerity forced on Hungary after the financial crisis, and the general rise in the top 1% fiscal income share from 2.5% in 1980 to 10% today. More marketised and unequal conditions lead to more crisis-ridden and closed-off societies, leading to marginalisation and scapegoating, particularly of Jewish people.
The Dreyfus affair itself occurred as the wealth share of the richest 1% rose from just over 50% to nearly 60% of total wealth over the course of the nineteenth century. This, coupled with the rise in trade protectionism in the early 1890s thanks to the lack of a super-state capable of moderating inequalities between regions, led to the birth of modern antisemitism in France and provided the context for the rise of fascism in Germany.
After the Second World War, states collaborated for a time to allow for the growth of European welfare states, as well as some social protection for workers in the US. But the oil crises of the 1970s and the collapse of the post-war monetary order meant something had to change. Without political unity, markets were constrained by nation-state borders. In 1976, UK Labour Prime Minister Callaghan was forced to cut public spending to get a loan from the IMF. In 1979, Democratic President Carter appointed to chair the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, who declared that year, ‘the standard of living of the average American has to decline’. He was true to his word, ramping up interest rates and increasing unemployment. The elections of Thatcher and Reagan were decisive in shifting their economies from inequality reduction to inequality enlargement. Other states soon caught on that they couldn’t compete on global capital markets if they didn’t obey the diktats of neoliberalism—privatise, privatise, and privatise!
The ‘private state’, as I call it, rose as the dominant form of political organisation across Europe, the US, and much of the rest of the world, as the formation of a world market without a world state forced states to become more disunified and unequal. Is it any surprise that the deadliest antisemitic violence in US history, the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting of 2018, was perpetrated by someone embedded in the ‘alt-right’ internet, which has consolidated since the inequality-fuelled financial crisis? Or that this occurred after around four decades of rises in top incomes, at the expense of wages which remain relatively low and stagnant as compared with dramatic and consistent rises in productivity? Who would have thought that exploited and alienated people adopt racist views?
If the 1890s, the 1930s, and the 2010s tell us anything, it’s this: whenever disunity and inequality rise too fast, antisemitism rises to abnormal levels. But if the past 2,500 years have taught us anything, it’s this: whenever disunity and inequality exist at all, antisemitism occurs. People marginalise and scapegoat others when they aren’t treated well. Disunity and inequality mean people aren’t treated well, potentially leading them to resort to antisemitism. When states compete with one another for power, they sometimes resort to scapegoating to justify their failure to guarantee their citizens’ safety and prosperity. Rich and powerful people also use racism to distract poor people from the real inequalities of wealth and power. From the Seleucid empire to contemporary Hungary, we’ve seen the ugly fruits of disunity and inequality.
Let’s combat antisemitism at its source, and overcome it for good by tackling disunity and inequality. There are constraints on how quickly we can move. If we try to overcome inequality with the click of our fingers, states risk capital flight. But the Labour government’s spending plans are moderate: spending as a proportion of GDP would rise from 38% (IMF forecast for 2023) to average European levels of 44%. This would help reduce inequality through a £150-billion Social Transformation Fund, a £250-billion National Investment Bank, and a £250-billion Green Transformation Fund—paid for by taxing the rich and borrowing a bit in a world of historically low interest rates. Public ownership of utilities would mitigate state-market disunity by re-embedding the economy in society. And a second referendum on our membership of the EU would give us the chance to remain in the EU and help transform it into a true democracy—a good recipe for overcoming interstate disunity.
The Conservatives, however, want to leave the EU completely and do a trade deal with the US. It doesn’t matter what Boris says. We’re a small country, and we’ve seen how the US does trade deals. It’s like hanging off the edge of a cliff, and Trump is the one who can save you, if only you give him what he wants. What would you do, if asked? Save the economy and sacrifice the NHS, or tank the economy and tank the NHS? It’s obvious what the Tories would have to do. Don’t let them do it. Don’t let a hard Brexit happen. Protect the NHS. Protect unity and equality. Protect Jewish people from the scapegoating that Tory policies cause.
The Lib Dems are little better. They might be willing to give a Labour minority government a second referendum—which is a plus. But they want to continue austerity. Their Deputy Leader even said so in a speech clamouring for a permanent budget surplus. The thing is: no state has a permanent budget surplus. Any state that tries ends up like the UK since 2010—lagging behind the US because the Tories and Lib Dems decided that cutting spending would grow the economy more than a massive US-style stimulus package would. It didn’t. Even Obama’s stimulus package wasn’t enough to grow the economy enough or alleviate inequality. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition didn’t even try.
A Tory government will, by increasing disunity and inequality, increase antisemitism. Don’t take it from me. Take it from history. If the Lib Dems get their way on austerity, a position which is more right-wing than the Tories’ current fiscal policy, antisemitism will continue to rise as Jewish people are scapegoated for problems that are structural.
A Labour government is different. Labour will try to reduce inequality and state-market disunity—and a second referendum is the only democratic road towards European (and, some day, global) unity, too. This may surprise some because 0.08% of Labour members have been accused of antisemitism. Every case of antisemitism is awful in any party. But it’s not a problem unique to Labour, as is demonstrated by the fact that, from 2015 to 2017, the proportion of Labour voters polled by YouGov holding the antisemitic stereotype of associating Jewish people with the pursuit of money declined to a level (14%) lower than both the Tories (27%) and the Lib Dems (19%). Antisemitism is a societal problem that isn’t confined to one party. It must, and will, be fought root and branch by any Labour government. Helpfully, their policies of social protection and wealth redistribution are likely to reduce the marginalisation and scapegoating of Jewish people.
So a Labour government would reduce antisemitism—by addressing its root causes: disunity and inequality.