For the moment, Mel Gibson’s drunken mug shot is the face of anti-Semitism. After his strenuous denials that The Passion of the Christ, his cinematic labor of love, was tainted by anti-Semitism, his rant that “Jews create all the wars in the world” created quite a stir.
But Gibson’s notoriety will fade. The malign beliefs about Jews that he expressed, unfortunately, are not so easily dispersed.
Anti-Semitism arises from a deep historical well. And it continues to serve a purpose in our era for the powers-that-be, for whom Jews remain a convenient scapegoat for social and economic troubles. This is how racism and sexism are used. Not helping matters is the role that Israel plays in the Middle East: out of confusion or malice, many critics of Israel falsely equate Jews as a people with the policies and actions of this oppressive state.
Illuminating the history of anti-Jewish persecution is a first step toward gaining what is lost among the anti-Semitic noise and the dropping of Israeli bombs — recognition for the radical, humanist Jewish tradition that continues to inspire the activism of so many Jews today.
The Jews: a 60-second economic history. In ancient times and into the Middle Ages, Jews were the traders and money lenders, filling a specialized niche in an agricultural world. Based on their economic role, they developed a distinct identity as a “people-class.” (The term was conceived by Abram Leon, a young Jewish Trotskyist leader from Poland who finished a brilliant work called The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation in 1940 and was murdered two years later in Auschwitz.)
Because their social role was widely disdained in early times, so were Jews. But their persecution increased seriously and systematically in the late Middle Ages, when European economies began to shift toward production of profitable goods for exchange.
As a new commodity system dependent on widely available credit emerged to replace feudalism, the formerly Jewish occupations of lending and trading became “respectable.” Christians competed with Jews and pushed them out, turning them into a surplus people in a changing world that had no place for them. One of the most brutal examples of this was the launching of the Spanish Inquisition and the forcible expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492.
With fledgling capitalism requiring new sources of wealth, it was no coincidence that in this same year Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand also backed Columbus’ trip to search for new trade routes and gold.
The conquistadors and Catholic Church emissaries who followed Columbus across the ocean brought with them their system of private profit and their contempt for Jews, whom they demonized as “Christ-killers.” Travel to the Americas was forbidden for Jews, even for the conversos, the converts to Catholicism. Those Jews who did manage to emigrate were abused in the “New World” just as they were in the Old. The invaders turned the methods of the Inquisition — torture, forced conversion — against both the indigenous population and transplanted Jews.
This was what Karl Marx scathingly referred to as the “rosy dawn” of capitalist production.
Modern uses of anti-Semitism. In 1905, a feudal autocracy still ruled Russia, but faced massive popular discontent. Needing to deflect this anger, czarist forces published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
This grotesque book purports to be the minutes of a secret meeting of Jewish leaders plotting to take over the world. In The Protocols, Jew-hatred meets Saturday Night Live, with absurd depictions of Jews as murderers of Christian children, whose blood they use to make matzos. The book paints power-hungry Jews as the engineers of both capitalism and the “evil” of communist revolution. (Oy vey, we are responsible for both the flame and the water.) The Protocols were quickly documented as a forgery, but their influence has cast a long shadow.
Car manufacturer Henry Ford, who attacked Jews and communists in his paper the Dearborn Independent, reprinted The Protocols in 1920. During World War II, Hitler used the malicious contents of the book to justify his policy of Jewish extermination.
A recent documentary about The Protocols showed its continuing influence as a popular seller at Wal-Mart and a “reference work” misguidedly quoted by some champions of Palestine and radical young African Americans. These are young people who care passionately about the ills of the world in which they live. Their political education is badly served, to say the least, by the mythology that Jews are the source of their problems. The tiny minority of Jewish millionaires, media owners like Rupert Murdoch, and influential politicians are acting as typical capitalists, not as representatives of the overwhelmingly workingclass Jewish people.
Meanwhile, anti-Semitic acts of vandalism and violence appear to be increasing. Human rights groups report desecrations of synagogues and cemeteries around the globe, openly anti-Semitic and fascist websites proliferate, and neo-Nazis persist in attempting to rally in public — although, thankfully, their opponents often outnumber them.
Israel, garrison state for the U.S. During the Holocaust, the German Nazis murdered more than half of the world’s Jews. Terrified survivors fleeing this horror were denied refuge in the U.S. and elsewhere and funneled to the Middle East. There, a hunted people looking for sanctuary provided the human material for the first Jewish state.
But the leaders of this new entity created it through the violent dispossession of Palestinians from a home where they had lived for generations — something that could only be managed with the approval of the major Western capitalist nations. And, over the decades, Israel’s leaders have continued to use genocidal violence to drive out the Palestinians, take over or demolish their homes, and settle on their land.
Israel operates with impunity, armed to the teeth by the U.S., using billions of U.S. tax dollars in aid (75 percent of which must be spent with U.S. corporations). This has given rise to the profound misunderstanding that Israel is the master in the relationship.
The opposite is the truth. Israel continues to survive only because its existence facilitates U.S. domination of the oil-rich Middle East. It is being paid for services rendered — the “service” of thwarting Arab rebellion against U.S. imperialism. Former NATO commander Alexander Haig called Israel “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world.”
To identify Israel as the world’s power broker, pulling the puppet strings of the U.S. Congress, Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, IBM, AT&T, GM, and Exxon, is a perilous error. But even many leftists make the mistake of believing that the tail wags the dog. Knowledgeable writers such as Alexander Cockburn and James Petras write of the power of the Israeli lobby to control and “undermine” U.S. foreign policy — as if without that lobby Uncle Sam’s international agenda would be an iota more democratic or progressive!
There is no “U.S. national interest” that the influence of the Israeli lobby damages. There are only the contending interests of workers and bosses. Workers are harmed by war, censorship, and rising oil prices, but the ruling class profits greatly.
Israel’s vicious role in the Middle East also makes possible another grave confusion. This is the equation of the Zionist state with the Jewish people, which makes possible two perversions in perspective. The first is the flourishing of anti-Semitism under an anti-Zionist banner (the charter of Hamas, to give just one example, cites The Protocols). The corollary is defense of the Israeli state by charging that any criticism of it is anti-Semitic.
But Zionism is not Judaism. It is Israeli nationalism, a racist, xenophobic ideology that says only Jews have the right to live in Israel. It doesn’t speak for all Jews or even all Israelis — just as fascism was not the creation of German or Italian workers, and President Bush’s rightwing policies are not the creation of U.S. working people. All of these nationalistic ideologies reflect the desperation of a capitalist class fighting to hang on.
Israel, just like any capitalist state, including its Arab neighbors, is a class-divided society. Dark-skinned Jews, women, gays and Arabs are discriminated against. To identify Zionist leaders with the Jewish people is to further the “divide and conquer” mentality that tragically set the working class of Israel against Palestinian and Arab working people. The princes, emirs, kings and prime ministers of the Middle East are allowed to continue to oppress their own peoples while denouncing each other as cover.
And what does all this mean for Jews in Israel? it means that Israel is not a haven for Jews, but a death trap, as Jewish Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky predicted it would be. The Zionist state cannot forever survive the justified hostility of the surrounding Arab populations — and the U.S. ruling class will continue to keep Israel on life support only so long as this satisfies its interests.
Finding the exit door. The way out of this impasse is for working people in all the countries involved to come to an understanding that Zionism and anti-Semitism are both tools of capitalism. They are used to deflect criticism away from the U.S. masters of war and to induce Jews, Arabs, and the people of the U.S. to identify with “their” governments instead of with their own workingclass needs and with their sisters and brothers across borders.
Historically, Jews have played a proud part in the fight against oppressive governments and systems. Generations of Jewish leftists, including Marx, Trotsky, Abram Leon, Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, and converso descendant Diego Rivera have organized against tyranny, often at the cost of their lives. Jews numbered among the Bolsheviks in Russia, joined the Nazi resistance in Europe, escaped from concentration camps, helped to found the labor and communist movements in the U.S., and are prominent in the fights for civil rights and women’s liberation.
This is natural and logical because Jews are an oppressed people. Socialists and progressives need to build on this legacy and dedicate themselves to bringing all the workers of the world, of every background, together against capitalism and every single one of its divide-and-conquer techniques.
Jewish feminist, socialist educator, and native New Yorker Adrienne Weller is a West Coast transplant with a strong record of organizing against the neo-Nazis in Portland, Oregon, and in Seattle.