The new anti-Semitism

  • ivor
Like many people, I am deeply distressed and surprised by the growth of anti-Semitism in left-wing circles. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is typical of a wider phenomenon. Anti-Zionism has given a fig leaf to expressions of hostility to Jews.
by IVOR CHIPKIN | Jun 13, 2019

Who can forget Fees Must Fall activist Mcebo Dlamini’s fondness for Hitler, or the anti-Semitic graffiti associated with the “Fallists”, or even the claims that University of the Witwatersrand Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib and the university’s administration were beholden to Zionist financiers.

Even if these were isolated incidents, the fact that they happened at all is suggestive of a political mutation.

Growing up in South Africa, anti-Semitism was unmistakably a phenomenon of white South Africans. Going to public schools in the 1970s and 1980s exposed Jews to deeply racist and anti-Semitic environments.

I know this from personal experience. I was the lone Jew at Craighall Primary in the 1970s, there with the children of the mainly English immigrants who had moved to South Africa a decade earlier. They had very easily adapted to the violence and racism of white South Africans.

Arriving at Woodmead School in Standard Nine (Grade 11) was my first liberation. Non-racism and diversity were spaces of tolerance, subversion, and freedom. So too was the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the broad “progressive movement”. Black politics opened up spaces of personal and political freedom. It was axiomatic that left-wing spaces were democratic and convivial.

So how has anti-Semitism become a “left-wing” phenomenon? The standard answer is that left-wing anti-Semitism is not anti-Semitism at all. It is anti-Zionism, an expression of opposition and antagonism to the apartheid-like character of the Israeli state and its ruling ideologies.

The fact that the Zionist state insists that it is a Jewish state implicates modern Jewishness in racism, occupation, and colonialism. The fact, moreover, that so many Jews identify as Zionists, implicates the majority of Jews as racists, occupiers, and colonialists.

Yet, there is a much more profound transformation happening of which left-wing anti-Semitism is just a symptom.

A lot has been written about populism in Europe and America, if less so in South Africa. Populists claim to speak on behalf of the “real people” or “silent majority” forsaken by globalising elites.

This appeal to authenticity ushers populists into the arms of nationalism.

Nationalism is ultimately a politics grounded in racial or cultural essentialism. In other words, it fixates on a particular trait (the colour of one’s skin, for example), and turns it into a measure of belonging to the nation. During the apartheid period, whiteness was the standard of national belonging, for example. In Israel today it is Jewishness.

Historically, the African National Congress and especially the UDF’s vision of post-apartheid South Africa was not a national one. We see this in the Constitution today, which goes very far in not defining the people of South Africa in any racial, religious, or cultural terms.

As nationalists have won the upper hand, however, (since Thabo Mbeki), so race-thinking has come more and more to dominate the definition of who is truly South African and who is not.

In Europe after World War II, the relationship between nationalism and fascism was increasingly understood. This is why the European Union, established as a bulwark against further wars, sought initially to subject national governments to a supra-national bureaucracy.

Germany was the biggest beneficiary of this change, able to deal (or repress) its Nazi past by strongly identifying as a European power, not a German one.

This supra-national feature of the European Union has been controversial since the beginning. Britain did not sign the Treaty of Rome in 1957, worried that it would be surrendering its sovereignty to the “empire of Charlemagne” ultimately under German control.

As it happened, Britain joined the common market only in 1973 – though it sued for entry earlier. Ambivalence to Europe in those days, however, was not necessarily a concession to British nationalism.

Labour, for example, the traditional party of “Euro-scepticism” saw Britain’s natural affiliation lying with the Commonwealth, not with Europe. In the 1950s and 1960s, membership of Europe competed with still strong attachments to the empire.

In the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing movements in Europe tended to be critical of nationalism. The “little people” were the workers exploited by capitalists everywhere.

When Labour appealed to the Commonwealth instead of Europe, it placed the identity of British people in relationship to the great and diverse people of the former empire. (This began to change as communists and socialists threw in their lot with “third-world” nationalism.)

Yet, the British Empire is long gone. Saying no to Europe has become an assertion of English – not even British – nationalism. After all, the Scottish and the Irish voted strongly to remain. And therein lies the difficulty. When nationalists in Britain speak of the “little people” what they are saying is “real English people”.

Paul Gilroy, one of Britain’s finest sociologists, writes that race thinking, including anti-Semitism, is so basic to nationalism that it is impossible to think the one without the other. His argument is compelling (and helps to explain why, bizarrely, the Israeli right increasingly talks of Palestinians in racial terms). In the United Kingdom, the alien character of the Jew is at the heart of this politics.

Left-wing Euro-scepticism in Britain, even if it sometimes still talks the language of international solidarity, has more and more thrown in its lot with little-England nationalism.

Many left-wing organisations and individuals have thrown in their lot with an inherently anti-Semitic politics. The Jew, that is, is a figure of profound hostility in a world of nationalist revival. Often, anti-Zionism is merely the respectable form of this new anti-Semitism.

  • Ivor Chipkin is the executive director of GAPP, a think-tank on government and public policy. This is an extract of a presentation he will make in Belgrade on 17 June to the International Studies Association Conference.


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