To coincide with the publication of my new book, Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It, which is published today, I’m running an extract from it on this blog. Today’s piece explores how the increase in antisemitism throughout the anglophone world began in 2015-16 with Trump’s run for the Presidency. This, far more than events in Britain, inspired emulators in other countries. Moreover, Trumpism has had a permanent effect on the Republican right in the United States, making antisemitism a plank of that party’s thinking. That process has continued, despite Trump’s electoral defeat at the end of last year.
During the 2016 election, Trump repeatedly employed antisemitic myths. He counterposed his message of America First to the risks posed by the “global” power structure, manifested in the “international banks” who he accused of holding covert meetings with Hillary Clinton. Trump also used anti-Jewish symbols, for example, by tweeting images of Hillary Clinton with a pile of money, the words “Most Corrupt Candidate ever,” and a six-pointed Jewish star. He claimed to be standing against the “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class”, words illustrated with an image of the Jewish CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein.
The effect of Trump’s success in that election can be traced in the growing popularity of antisemitic online memes and messages, and in antisemitic actions off-line. So, for example, on Twitter; the Anti-Defamation League found that 2.6 million anti-Jewish tweets were sent between summer 2015 and summer 2016. The ADL was especially concerned with tweets directed at anti-Trump or pro-Democrat journalists, who were accused of being unpatriotic Jews. Some 800 journalists were targeted in this way, and 45 million people read the antisemitic messages directed at them. Indeed between 2016 and 2017, the Anti-Defamation League found, the total number of antisemitic tweets rose again – by more than 50 percent.
Indeed, if we look beyond Twitter, the picture is the same. Fascists and antisemites were able to build up an audience under his patronage, and at an extraordinary speed. So, for example, James Allsup was a member of the far-right Identity Evropa group. In 2016, he first came to the attention of the press when he was a student Republican at Washington State University and a vocal supporter of Donald Trump. Together with fewer than a dozen other people who supported him, Allsup put up a “Trump Wall” at WSU. He later invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. Both events were widely covered in Trump-supporting Republican media and helped to create an image of Allsup as a young, contrarian, boldly standing up to political correctness in all its forms. Prior to November 2015 and Trump’s rise, he had no visible presence on YouTube or on other social media. In August 2019 YouTube closed his account. By that point, his films had been watched 73 million times.
Events such as the use of antisemitic slogans by far-right activists at Charlottesville in summer 2017 (“Jews will not replace us”), or the defence of those protesters by Trump (“very fine people on both sides”), showed that, after years in which antisemitism had been marginal to American politics it was tolerated by one of the country’s two main parties.
Moreover, Trump’s philosemitism was not merely a personal affectation but played to a part of his voting base: Evangelicals who see the restoration of the Jewish people to statehood in Israel as a prerequisite the speeding up of the millennium. These fantasies offer Jews little long-term benefit. The Book of Romans envisages that with the arrival of end-times the Jews will all be converted to Christianity – and cease to exist as Jews.
Some readers may object to the ideas of Trump as a key figure in the global spread of antisemitism. He has a Jewish daughter; he has promoted the interests of Israel. Trump has spoken at Jewish events. All these characteristics are said to prove that Trump is no antisemite.
It is true that Trump has used language which sounds, on its own terms, pro-Jewish. But we need to dig a little deeper. As so often happens where people express their admiration for Jews, the kinds of behaviour he fixed on were ones which are unlike how most Jewish people live, and which many Jews would find uncomfortable. So, on 8 December 2019, Trump addressed the Israeli American Council National Summit: “A lot of you are in the real estate business because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers. Not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me; you have no choice. You’re not going to vote for the wealth tax.”
Trump pretended to make a joke of Jewish disdain for him, saying it was reciprocated. But commercial interests, he argued, would bind his audience to him: “Even if you don’t like me; some of you don’t. Some of you I don’t like at all, actually. And you’re going to be my biggest supporters because you’ll be out of business in about 15 minutes, if [the Democrats] get in.”
Plainly, in Trump’s mind, he is a Jew-lover, but what is it about Jews that he admires? He loves the “fact” that Jews are businessmen and hate taxes. He believes that Jews place their own interests above other people, that Jews are clannish and insular, that Jews formulate plans to advance their own interests, and that Jews have a power which is international. All these ideas make him an antisemite, no matter how many Jews he speaks to.
Under Trump and since, a number of Republican Congressmen including Kevin McCarthy, Louie Gohmert, Steve King, and Paul Gosar have spread conspiracy theories in which prominent Jews, such as the financier and Democrat-donor George Soros, are blamed for any setback suffered by their party.
The reason the politicians have done so, is that this faction of the American centre-right (along with President Trump) understands American politics as a struggle between “globalists” who would sell out America to her foreign rival China and to various other international institutions which are perceived to have escaped from American control and “economic nationalists” who would defend US interests aggressively.
Once you have split up politics between nationalists and internationalists, it is an easy next step to see Jews not as a group of people who agree or disagree with one in the way that black people or white people do, but as an ideological category – supporters of multi-national institutions such as the IMF or WHO or World Bank, advocates of liberal policies such as freer migration, and an obstacle in the path of right-wing victory.
Trump-style antisemitism spread beyond US borders. If you want a good example of it, think of the Soros myth, in other words the idea that all liberal, left, anti-fascist and pro-migrant sentiment in the world is financed by a single shadowy Jewish financier, George Soros. Here are some examples of how that idea spread into parts of the new nationalist right: in Hungary in 2018, the ruling Fidesz party stood for reelection on the slogan, “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh!” The posters were then covered almost everywhere with grafitti identifying Soros as a Jew.
Italians started talking about Soros-financed immigrant boats arriving on the shores. In the US, some people suspected Soros was behind the migrant caravan entering from Central America. A Polish member of parliament called Soros the “most dangerous man in the world.” In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair published a cartoon showing Soros as the puppet master controlling first shape-shifting lizards, then Illuminati, and then finally a triad of anti-corruption activists, journalists and left-wing politicians. In Britain, a range of nationalist-mindeed conservatives have one on record to support the myth: Roger Scruton, and the MPs Sally-Ann Hart and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
In emphasising that the Donald Trump campaign was the moment when antisemitism became a significant force in global politics, after thirty years in which it had been at the margins – I am not minimising the mistakes of the left, or saying that there was any high wall preventing ideas which had begun at one point on the political spectrum from then reppearing at another. There were also places where antisemitism came into the UK left – even moments where you can trace the transmission from the US right to the left here:
The Mear One mural. The story of antisemitism in the Labour Party became front-page news in March 2018, when Jeremy Corbyn was asked about his support for an American artist Mear One who had painted a street mural in east London, ‘Freedom for Humanity’. If you look at the mural for any length of time, it clearly embodies any number of antisemitic visual messages. Corbyn had seen the photograph and posted a quick, mis-spelled message of support for the artist. For this, he was widely and rightly criticised. Mear One, had been a street artist in the hip hop scene of 1980s Los Angeles and had contributed to anti-war art tours before being invited to paint his mural. In Mear One’s account the design was simply the transportation to Britain of the politics of the Occupy movement: “I had just gone through the cypher of Occupy LA 2011 … my experiences helped to crystallise my post 9/11 thinking on global politics and the economic slave system, deepening my knowledge of fractional-reserve lending and other banking schemes that led to the collapse of the markets in 2008.” Mear thought he was on the left, but in reality he had been radicalised to the right by Occupy and by coming across right-libertarians there, and believing their criticisms of capitalism in which the problems of the latter were blamed on banking, finance and (just beneath the surface) the Jews. Asked to explain what the criticisms of the mural were about, he said, “Some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc. as the demons they are.” Mear gave an interview to DavidIcke.com. “I thank David Icke and Gareth Icke and their team” Mear One wrote, “for allowing me this opportunity to offer my side of the story, uncut and uncensored, for those who are awoken.”
The Campaign against Luciana Berger. This began in 2014, the US far-right website Daily Stormer website developed an obsession with Berger, and published about 40 articles about her, denouncing her for being Jewish. At one point Berger was receiving hate messages at the rate of 800 *a day*. Between 2014 and 2018 three supporters of the far right were jailed for threatening her. (A fourth case began with emails sent by a fascist to her, although the sender was convicted and jailed for other, terrorism, offences). From early on Berger seemed to be a particular target also for some people on the left – with rational criticisms of her (she was on the right of the party, she had a long record of pro-Israel advocacy, she had been parachuted into a left-wing Labour seat…) spilling over into something strange and unpleasant and unjustifiable. Leftwing music promoter and anti-racist activist Philip Hayes was convicted after abusing her when he was drunk (“I fucking hate Jewish people”). In March 2018, another supporter of the Labour left received a suspended sentence after sending her hatemail. By 2018, when Berger was blamed for the Mear One story making it into the press, she received abuse at an extraordinary rate.
At the fringes of the antiwar movement. In 2019, the pro-Corbyn MP Chris Williamson toured the Labour Party and the UK, putting his anti-war and left of centre politics to every audience he could find. He then promoted the social media presence of the people who had hosted or spoken alongside him. Among the individuals he boosted where Gilad Atzmon (“Hands off Gilad Atzmon – Sign the Petition”) and Vannessa Beeley (“a privilege to hear her speak”), each of whom have been able to build significant social media presences by appealing to an anti-American milieu on the edges of – and just outside – the ordinary antiwar movement. Atzmon will be familiar to many readers of this blog for his long record of Holocaust Denial and antisemitism. While, as for Beeley, she has denounced the Syrian medical defenders the White Helmets (“are #WhiteHelmets not ready to come out of the Zionist closet just yet?”), Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia (“#Zionist apologist”), Palestine Solidarity campaigners who support an uprising against the Assad regime (“Zionist agenda in #Syria”), and politicians in France (“a Zionist apologist”) and UK (“Zionist agenda”). Individuals in this pro-dictator, antisemitic milieu are able to build an audience in part because in the US, unlike in Britain, the antiwar movement has largely broken its relationship to the organised left, and its supported by parts of the libertarian right, and key blogs such as antiwar.com, are funded by the right.
In conclusion – often people talk about antisemitism as if it is a permanent fixture in life – always present, and always at the same intensity. But that’s wrong. It used to be part of the wisdom of the US centre-right that anti-Jewish racism was as a disaster for them. The things the right was trying to do – enable capital moving freely, spread a right-wing version of open borders – did not connect well to antisemitic ideas or conspiracy theories. With the right’s turn to nationalism, the vision has grown of a different way you could run an economy, as a series of national fortresses – this creates a space for antisemitism to revive.
It used to be part of the collective wisdom of the centre-right that in order to grow they needed to keep antisemites and conspiracy theorists out. Think for example of what happened to former Klan leader David Duke when he ran for US Senate in Louisiana in 1990. Criticised almost as much by Republicans by Democrats, the GOP surrendered the primacy to incumbent Democratic senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr., rather than having a racist and antisemite elected on their ticket. Looking back on that moment, it feels like it is not thirty but a hundred years ago – so much has changed.
Since 2016, a racist view of the world has become integrated into mainstream centre-right thinking. It will continue to do harm even now that Trump removed from the White House. And in a world connected online, where ideas move freely, and can cross ideological lines – the left needs to be much better than we have been at identifying antisemitism when it is near to hand, and opposing it.