Anti-Semitic attacks are rising again. The proximate cause seems to have been the Israeli action in Gaza. Since then, the Community Security Trust — the body that monitors these things — has noted an eightfold increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Britain.
Perhaps I ought to make clear that I am no apologist for the Israeli action in Gaza. I have spent time with the children the Israeli jets were dropping bombs on. I have been shot at by the Israeli army in Gaza. Yet I still think that some (not all) of the criticism that Israel receives is criticism that is looking for any and every opportunity to express itself. This is not just criticism from Israel’s enemies in the Arab world, or from right-wing racists, but also criticism from the Left.
The phenomenon of left-wing anti-Semitism is a puzzle to many. Indeed, some deny its very existence. Yet, from the origins of the Left, there have been those that have tapped into this most ancient of prejudices. Marx himself, though Jewish, bought into a wildly anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew as a greedy capitalist usurer.
Karl Kautsky, one of the leading exponents of orthodox Marxism, argued that: “We cannot say we have completely emerged from the Middle Ages as long as Judaism still exists among us. The sooner it disappears, the better it will be.”
Of course, no one on the Left would dream of saying such a thing these days, but many argue that this anti-Semitic prejudice has morphed into the rhetoric of anti-Zionism. An attack on the State of Israel is sometimes code for an attack on Jews.
This is tricky stuff, for the state of Israel sometimes genuinely deserves criticism, just as other states sometimes do. But the Left’s repeated attacks on Israel, and the specific targeting of Israeli actions whatever they are, add up to a form of socially acceptable anti-Semitism. And what no one, to my knowledge, has suggested is that one of the root causes of this is the blind spot of much of the Left concerning religion.
Like it or not, the very identity and existence of the State of Israel is bound up with Judaism. Israel makes no sense without the Hebrew scriptures. But, because a large part of the Left has so wedded itself to the belief that progress comes with secularisation, it cannot accept a religious explanation for anything; so it immediately thinks of it as a form of prejudice. It is significant that Kautsky was a virulent anti-religionist, also writing a book condemning Christianity.
Of course, Christians invented anti-Semitism. But I suspect that unless the Left finds some accommodation with religion, it will never escape the grip of this most ancient of evils.
Canon Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.