Historical Injustice and Human Rights Violations: Reconciling Anti-Semitism and Modern Anti-Imperialism


A UN map of the proposed partition of Palestine, circa 1947

This week at Erstwhile, Travis R May examines crises in the UK’s Labour Party and the US’s Democratic Party in light of the history of anti-Semitism.  


Since taking office in January, U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar has provoked a firestorm of debate in the Capitol and the press, mostly over her criticisms of the Israeli government’s policies in occupied Palestinian territory and the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Congress. Democratic centrists (including the party’s congressional leadership), Republicans, and a number of Jewish groups considered her recent statements inflammatory. In effect, Omar’s remarks, which did not explicitly impugn the Jewish people of either America or Israel, but instead questioned the influence of Israeli money in American politics, were nevertheless construed as anti-Semitic and were officially rebuked in the halls of power on the grounds that they drew upon historically anti-Semitic calumnies. Leftists in the U.S., including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, did not agree with this evaluation, and instead viewed the backlash as an obfuscation tactic to distract American voters from morally dubious—and indeed, overtly imperialist—Israeli policies.[1]

In order to understand this controversy, we must contextualize Omar’s comments, and the reaction against them. Omar’s censure is not a solitary development, as leftist critics of Israel (or, more specifically and accurately, leftist critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party’s policies regarding the occupation of Palestinian territory) in the West have in recent years been accused of anti-Semitism by right-wing and centrist opponents and certain Jewish activist groups for denouncing human rights abuses committed by Israeli forces against Palestinian civilians, and for questioning the role of financial incentives in the pro-Israel lobby in those countries.[2] In the United Kingdom, for example, the Labour Party has come under fire for allegedly condoning anti-Semitism since the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership in 2015. Corbyn has a long history of embracing anti-imperialist causes, including criticizing the British government’s support for apartheid South Africa and draconian British policies in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. His recent critiques of Israel for human rights abuses against Palestinians fall along similar lines. This has proven controversial, and in late February nine members of Parliament formally abandoned the Labour Party over concerns related to Corbyn’s hostility to Israeli policies.[3] They also cited a feeling that Corbyn has been reluctant to address and condemn a growing raft of anti-Semitic abuse within the Party. The tension, then, between anti-Zionist leftists who support Palestinians against human rights abuses and favor a two-state solution, and Jewish groups and individuals who consider claims that money has played a role in currying favor for the Israeli state as inherently anti-Semitic in nature, is real (although leftists have, with sound reason, dismissed the bulk of the rancor as little more than a political hit job on Corbyn).[4] This is not a particularly recent development either—the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has its origins in 2005 and has faced accusations of anti-Semitism more or less ever since.[5] Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic (both large and small c), for their part, have predominantly jumped in on the side of the Israeli government and Jewish activist groups to stoke these tensions—one cannot help but think rather opportunistically, given the deep historical and more recent connections between conservatism and anti-Semitism.[6]

But what exactly is anti-Semitism? Does any critique of the state of Israel and its government meet this qualification, based on its Jewish origins and tradition, and the tragic history of the Jewish people? Does any claim that money spent by Israel-aligned groups to influence international opinion about the government and its policies constitute a resurrection of hateful anti-Semitic tropes insinuating a vast, global, Jewish financial conspiracy? Or must we consider the possibility that there is a potential danger in conflating anti-Semitism (a potent and horrific historic force, as we shall return to below at length) with the legitimate critique of the abuse of power over an ethnically dissimilar people—with anti-imperialism, effectively?[7] I would argue that this is quite often indeed the case, and that many conservatives have cynically weaponized claims of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism of the state of Israel while simultaneously opening rifts within the leftist and liberal parties that oppose them. Imprecise language and perhaps a less than comprehensive understanding of the rhetoric of anti-Semitism on the part of the left have created potential vulnerabilities in their critique of Israel, and conservative groups have strategically attacked these openings to the hilt. But, whether those concerned with the rise of anti-Semitism are acting in good faith or not, given the rise of far-right groups and the very real, recent proliferation of anti-Semitism in both America and Europe,[8] it is incumbent upon leftists to come to grips with the history of anti-Semitism and its most harmful and persistent tropes, in order to avoid unintentionally echoing this hateful language while making their cogent and necessary critiques of modern Israeli policy.

In other words, I believe we must grapple with the dark history of anti-Semitism and its ideological forebear, anti-Judaism, in order to fully understand the concerns of those who believe leftist critiques of Israel draw upon anti-Semitic blueprints, and in order to ensure that our modern criticisms of the policies of the state of Israel do not unintentionally replicate or resurrect these historical calumnies. Due to the limitations of the format, this account will be a brief and simplified one, and will doubtless glaze over a number of very important historiographical debates in the field. Nevertheless, I hope to sketch, in broad terms, some of the most significant features of this odious historical phenomenon.

Sack of Jerusalem Temple

A representation of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.

The history of anti-Judaism is nearly as lengthy as the history of the Jewish people themselves, beginning with biblical episodes of confinement, abuse, and exile at the hands of the ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Seleucid, and Roman regimes. After the cataclysmic destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the future Roman emperor Titus in 70 CE, and the expulsion of the Jews from their homeland by Roman authorities following the Bar Kokhba revolts of the 130s CE, a significant but widely dispersed Jewish diaspora formed around the Mediterranean basin and eventually throughout most of the rest of Europe as well. During the Middle Ages in Europe, these Jewish residents of various European kingdoms were often subject to oppression and abuse and only enjoyed residency rights at the pleasure of the various hereditary monarchs, which eventually led to the expulsion of the Jews from most of Western Europe starting in England in 1290 CE and culminating in 1492 CE with the expulsion (and/or mass forced conversion) of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Anti-Jewish fervor in the Europe of the Middle Ages was partly economic and partly religious in nature. Because of laws and social mores regarding usury in Latin Christendom, Jewish merchants and bankers were for a long period the only individuals who were able and willing to provide above-board loans. This niche offered them opportunities for financial success and quite often a good deal of influence in court politics, but it came at the cost of associating them with greed in the eyes of many gentiles who deeply resented paying interest rates, and left them uniquely vulnerable to court intrigues and conspiracies.[9] Religious discrimination came in many forms during this time period as well—Jewish residents in Europe suffered baseless accusations of child sacrifice relating to the blood libel calumny (the claim that Christian blood was necessary to leaven Jewish Passover bread), as well as the desecration of the host (the equally absurd idea that Jewish people would steal the Eucharist—the sacred bread that, via the doctrine of transubstantiation, literally becomes the Body of Christ—and torture it in order to re-enact the suffering Jesus was subjected to on the cross).[10] Thus, when Jews were expelled (or, in certain cases as in the Italian states, confined to living and working within segregated ghetto districts of cities), there was virtually no opposition from the non-Jewish peoples of Europe.

Blood Libel

An anti-Semitic image of the Blood Libel ritual.

The Roman Church, for its part, at the height of its historical power, encouraged this discrimination against the Jewish people, holding them up as a foil against which to highlight comparative Christian faith and virtue.[11] Perhaps the most infamous example of violence produced by the endemic anti-Judaism of Christian Europe during the Middle Ages came during the opening years of the First Crusade in the late 11th century, when a body of crusader knights and warriors temporarily diverted their route to the Holy Land in order to commit a massive pogrom of the Jewish residents of cities like Worms in the German Rhineland. Not merely entire families, but entire Jewish communities, were put to the sword and slaughtered in an orgy of religious hatred, and the few that managed to escape by feigning death or through the interventions of sympathetic local secular leaders and clergy left harrowing tales of their survival.[12]

Two major developments influenced the treatment of Jewish peoples in Europe in the early modern period. First, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century irrevocably fractured the unity of the Roman Church. While by no means all Protestant leaders or sects practiced tolerance towards Jews (Martin Luther, for example, was initially ambivalent but subsequently became openly hostile to the Jewish people after failing to convert them during the Reformation),[13] certain predominantly Protestant polities like the newly independent Calvinist Dutch Republic implemented cosmopolitan reforms that welcomed Sephardi Jews and marranos,[14] many of whom went on to establish profitable trading enterprises in the bustling port city of Amsterdam. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the European Enlightenment that bloomed in the 18th century rebuked religious “superstition” and blind adherence to dogma, and correspondingly pressed for the implementation of liberal governance based on rationality, natural rights, and tolerance. Although the process was imperfect and piecemeal, it was embraced by actors from across the political spectrum—from absolutist “enlightened despots” in Prussia and Austria to the French Revolutionary leaders of the 1790s—and by the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th century, official or tacit toleration had been extended to Jewish communities across large swaths of Western and Central Europe.[15]

The 19th century brought about new challenges for the Jews of Europe. Even as the ideals of the Enlightenment swept away religious justifications for intolerance and oppression, they also ushered in the fetishization of science, including now notorious pseudo-sciences that took categorizing, cataloguing, and ranking human ethnicity and race as their mandate. Anti-Judaism, the historical prejudice towards Jewish individuals based principally on their religious beliefs, was supplanted (or, in some cases among conservative and religious actors, layered and reinforced) by anti-Semitism—prejudice against the Jewish people not based primarily on religious grounds, but instead on ethnic identity. This latter doctrine was based explicitly on conceptions of biological difference. In other words, this view held that conversion to Christianity could not undo the fundamental ethnic differences between a Jewish person and a gentile.[16] Anti-Semitism was endemic across Europe by the late 19th century. Nationalists in virtually every country stoked the flames of bigotry and hatred by emphasizing the supposedly alien nature of the Jewish people in their midst, and Jewish communities were made the scapegoat for the economic tensions, insecurity, and privation that coincided with industrialization and the strengthening of capitalism. The loyalty of Jewish subjects and citizens was questioned, and nationalists held that these groups could not be trusted because their allegiance to their faith would supposedly trump allegiance to their country (hence the recent critiques of Omar’s question of divided allegiances—although Jewish individuals in the diaspora have come to Omar’s defense to make the case that Israeli hegemonic policy does, in fact, demand a dual allegiance from Jews outside its borders).[17] In the East, Ashkenazi Jews in the segregated Pale of Settlement periodically faced brutal pogroms and eventually expulsion at the hands of Tsarist authorities, demonstrating that anti-Semitism proliferated in reactionary regimes just as much or even more so than in nominally liberal ones. The false charges made against the Jewish people were updated to fit the times, as well. Virulently anti-Semitic documents like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion suggested the Jewish orchestration of a global financial conspiracy meant to undermine the prosperity of the peoples of the world, resulting in their domination by a Jewish cabal.[18] This is a particularly persistent conspiracy, and Omar’s critique of AIPAC is held by some to fall into this general strain of anti-Semitism—though the long-running right-wing conspiracy theories regarding the outsized influence of the Hungarian-American liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros fit the historical standard much more closely than Omar’s claims.[19]

Protocols of the Elders of Zion

An anti-Semitic cover to a translated copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was not uncommon for these covers to defame Jews as octopuses, spiders, snakes, and other animals associated with duplicity.

Facing this mounting discrimination, Jewish communities reacted in a variety of ways. Some sought assimilation into the European countries they called home, hoping to emphasize their equal investment in these newly forming national identities.[20] Others, led by the Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl, expressed the belief that—in the face of rampant anti-Semitism—the Jewish peoples of the world would never experience collective security or successfully rekindle their ancient shared heritage unless they founded a national homeland.[21] This belief, which became known as Zionism, called for placing pressure on Western governments and officials in order to authorize Jewish resettlement of Palestine, the territory many of their ancestors had called home two millennia before (which was, at this point, a territory of the Ottoman Empire occupied primarily by Arabic, Muslim peoples). The Balfour Declaration of 1917, made by the Conservative former Prime Minister of Great Britain A.J. Balfour at the behest of the influential and wealthy Rothschild family and Chaim Weizmann just as the British Empire seized Palestine from the Ottoman Turks in the First World War, made manifest the desire of Zionists (although British interwar policy often failed to coincide with their demands for relaxing Jewish immigration quotas, and hostility between Zionists and the British ultimately led to a bloody war in the 1940s).[22]

The culmination of this festering ethnic hatred against the Jewish people of Europe came in the Shoah or the Holocaust, perpetrated by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party—fascists from the far right of the political spectrum—maintained that Jews were parasites attached to the national bodies of Europe, draining them of vitality and debasing them through miscegenation. Even while decrying their wretchedness and weakness, he simultaneously (and, it has been noted, contradictorily) subscribed to the belief that the Jews were behind a powerful and dangerous conspiracy to destroy the German nation (Jews, along with socialists, were primarily blamed for the “Stab in the Back” of 1918 that supposedly robbed the German Empire of final victory on the battlefields of the First World War—a grossly incorrect illusion, but a potent one nevertheless).[23] The Nazi policies during the Holocaust resulted in the deaths of approximately six million Jews from across the continent through a variety of gruesome means, including mass shootings and the notorious gas chambers of the six Nazi extermination camps, where guards administered Zyklon-B pellets into rooms disguised as delousing showers.[24] By every appreciable measure, this was the most destructive and extreme instance of anti-Semitism in history—quantitatively, but also qualitatively, as the Nazi Final Solution ultimately sought to erase the Jewish people from the world through a process of systematic extermination. But, at the same time, it would be a mistake to suggest that modern anti-Semitism was a uniquely German phenomenon. Anti-Semites prospered in virtually every European country, not to mention the United States, in the first half of the 20th century, and anti-Semitic citizens of Poland, France, and many other Axis-affiliated or occupied countries participated actively in the Holocaust as well.[25] Germany under the Nazis was certainly deserving of the lion’s share of the blame for this unparalleled humanitarian tragedy, but citizens of other Western nation-states should take no comfort from this fact—they were by no means immune to the allure of anti-Semitic beliefs and policies. And subsequent waves of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe in the immediate post-war period, as well as in the Soviet Union and in predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries, have proven that the (temporary?) defeat of Nazism as an ideology in the Second World War did not put a definitive punctuation mark on the history of anti-Semitism.

Zyklon B

A Zyklon-B poison canister.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the legacy of anti-Semitism remains a profoundly important one, and the existence of the state of Israel, and its historically mutually hostile relationship with surrounding Arab countries and Palestine, makes this a particularly thorny issue. But the admirable impulse to swear that the horrors of the Holocaust must “never again” be countenanced rests uneasily with the current Israeli government’s flagrant abuse of international law and human rights in its dealings with Palestinians. The question of how to raise legitimate concerns about outsized Israeli influence over Western governments—especially when said influence has been secured through financial means—without unintentionally invoking the hateful stereotypes associated with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is one that the political left on both sides of the Atlantic must confront and answer in a nuanced manner that takes great care not to enflame this historically fraught issue. Equally, though, we should be wary of those who cynically attempt to conflate any criticism of Israel and its current policies with anti-Semitism. For all its pretensions, the current government of Israel does not represent the wishes and interests of global Judaism, and it should not remain above critique despite the complicated and often tragic history of the Jewish people. Even if we grant that Omar’s words were clumsy to the point of insensitivity, it seems clear that her intention was to open an honest dialogue regarding the Western sanction of human rights abuses being committed by one of our closest allies in a region of vital strategic importance. That is a conversation worth having, although we must tread carefully, sympathetically, and compassionately around the historical marginalization and abuse of the Jewish people to do so.

Israeli forces

Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank.


[1] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/2/12/18220241/ilhan-omars-twitter-tweet-anti-semitism.

[2] https://www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12657.doc.htm; https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/israel/palestine. This is probably an appropriate place to note that condemning illegal and indeed immoral Israeli policies in Palestine is not the same as condoning either Palestinian-orchestrated acts of terror or the prevailing attitude of many Muslim-majority states in the region in regard to Israel. All too often, these states have crossed the threshold into overt anti-Semitism in their anti-Israeli rhetoric. And it should, of course, be noted that the governments of many of these other states in the region—including Saudi Arabia and Iran—are guilty of human rights abuses of their own. But, as the old aphorism goes, two wrongs do not make a right, and the conduct of Israel’s often hostile neighbors (not to mention the US government’s own long and sordid track record of human rights violations, both domestic and abroad) should not excuse clear instances of human rights abuses and illegal actions undertaken or condoned by the Israeli government.

[3] https://www.vox.com/world/2019/3/8/18249953/uk-labour-party-anti-semitism-jeremy-corbyn-juliana-berger.

[4] https://jacobinmag.com/2018/04/jeremy-corbyn-antisemitism-labour-party.

[5] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/1/9/18172826/bds-law-israel-boycott-states-explained. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is modeled on the campaign to undermine the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s and has been endorsed by Bishop Desmond Tutu and the African National Congress for this reason, has also been accused of anti-Semitic leanings since its founding in 2005. While BDS aims to place economic pressure on Israel in order to force it to change its policies, including pressing for the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from occupied territories, the removal of the separation barrier in the West Bank, and the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, centrist and right-wing critics in the US have accused it of attempting to undermine and destroy the state of Israel. In the US, 26 states have passed resolutions condemning BDS, in some cases going so far as to sanction and punish companies that refuse to do business with Israel. A bill that intended to give these states legal cover for their actions was defeated by Democratic filibuster in early January in the US Senate, but the issue remains a deeply controversial one that will likely eventually make its way through the US courts system.

[6] https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/03/donald-trump-ilhan-omar-democrats.

[7] By anti-imperialism, I primarily mean resistance to domination and coercion by a foreign power, although the Marxist-Leninist model of anti-imperialism as opposing the acquisitive and inherently exploitative spread of global capital is also relevant, given the aims of BDS campaigns targeting US arms manufacturers and dealers like Raytheon http://www.mnrepublic.com/article/2018/03/groups-renew-debate-over-bds-movement. A separate question, and perhaps one too complicated and fraught to engage with in this piece, relates to how we choose to deal with perpetrators who come from a historically marginalized and oppressed group. The comparison of Israel to apartheid-regime South Africa raised by the BDS movement is an interesting and potentially edifying one. Both modern-day Israel and 20th-century apartheid era South Africa have implemented restrictions on movement and policies of containment against oppressed subject populations. At the same time, both the Jews and the Afrikaners (also known as the Boers, which means “farmers” in Afrikaans) were the victims of gross historical abuses at the hands of predatory, imperialist powers—the Third Reich and the British Empire, respectively. But, as Mahmood Mamdani’s study of the Rwandan genocide has shown, the identity of victimhood by no means precludes a group from committing horrifying atrocities. In other words, there is little or no correlation between historical abuse and future ethical behavior. History does not seem to impart moral consciousness to those who are made to suffer, and as Mamdani observed, quite often the “victims” of past cycles of violence have become the “killers” of the present. Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[8]https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/feb/15/antisemitism-rising-sharply-across-europe-latest-figures-show; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/us/anti-semitism-attacks.html; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html.

[9] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-moneylending/.

[10] https://www.adl.org/education/resources/glossary-terms/blood-libel; https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/host-desecration-of.

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/vatican-ii-the-beginning-of-the-end-of-catholic-anti-semitism/2012/10/25/f2a2356e-1ee2-11e2-8817-41b9a7aaabc7_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.49fabcffaaa7. In fact, the Catholic Church’s hostility to Judaism did not begin to subside until centuries later, after the Holocaust, and it was not until the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s that the Church disavowed the teaching that Jewish people were individually and collectively guilty of deicide as Christ-killers.

[12]  Simon Schama, The History of the Jews, 1000 BCE-1492 CE (Vintage Books 2014).

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Jews_and_Their_Lies

[14] https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-marranos/. The marranos were primarily Sephardi Jews who were pressured or forced into conversion by the Spanish authorities in the last decades of the Reconquista. Much to the chagrin of Catholic officialdom, many continued to practice Jewish rituals in secret as crypto-Jews. Much of the impetus of the infamous Spanish Inquisition was targeted at revealing and punishing these individuals.

[15]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1782_Edict_of_Tolerance;  https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/french-revolution.

[16] Weinberg, Sonja (2010). Pogroms and Riots: German Press Responses to Anti-Jewish Violence in Germany and Russia (1881–1882).

[17] http://politicsslashletters.live/commentary/the-zionist-problem-divided-loyalties-in-the-jewish-diaspora/.

[18] https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/protocols-of-the-elders-of-zion.

[19] http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/glenn-beck-gets-embarrassingly-debunked-by-his-own-website/.

[20] http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/assimilation.

[21] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zionism.

[22] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/10/100-years-balfour-declaration-explained-171028055805843.html.

[23] https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/stab-in-the-back_myth.

[24] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/an-introductory-history-of-the-holocaust.

[25] Jan T Gross, Neighbors: the Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/holocaust/france/deportations.aspThis is not to suggest that anti-Semitism is not a potent force today—merely that it enjoyed significantly more mainstream appeal before 1945 and the revelations regarding the scale of the Holocaust.


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