During a week when the problem of anti-Semitism has become the focus of such public angst, we would expect nothing less than Jeremy Corbyn’s entering the picture. And so he did. Amid the very real anxieties spurred by the San Diego synagogue shooting and the absurdly high-pitched debate over an anti-Semitic cartoon published by The New York Times, it was revealed that Jeremey Corbyn had once penned a laudatory introduction to a book by a long-dead social thinker with anti-Semitic views.
On one level, the expose says a lot about the insane levels of race hysteria that have gripped modern politics. On the other, Corbyn’s introduction says a lot about the left and the Jews.
The insanity is that the Corbyn controversy relates to a forward he wrote in 2011 for a reprint of a 117-year-old book called Imperialism: A Study, none of which relates to Jews directly. Examining the peak of European empires, the book lays the blame on the capitalist system. In its time it was highly influential and praised by everyone from Lenin to Keynes, although its thesis has since been largely discredited.
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The problem is that the author, J.A. Hobson, had views that by today’s standards would make him an anti-Semite. By the standards of his day, maybe not, but one of the hallmarks of the current controversy over race and gender is that no margin is allowed for historical context or serious examination.
Certainly, the things Hobson said look bad on paper. In another book of his he praises many of the qualities of the newly arrived Jews from Eastern Europe to Britain, but then adds: “The very virtues just enumerated are the chief faults we find in the foreign Jew … The foreign Jews is a terrible competitor. He is the nearest approach to the ideal ‘economic’ man …. He is almost void of social morality.”
Hobson’s study of imperialism has almost nothing to say about Jews. It contains a single reference, however, which is clear enough:
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“United by the strongest bonds of organization, always in closest and quickest touch with one another, situated in the very heart of the business capital of every State, controlled, so far as Europe is concerned, chiefly by men of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience, they are in a unique position to control the policy of nations. No great quick direction of capital is possible save by their consent and through their agency. Does anyone seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by any European State, or a great State loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections set their face against it?”
Corbyn’s introduction to the book is quite long and relates to the history of Western imperialism since 1902. He praises the Chavez regime in Venezuela and the “Islamic opposition” for challenging the free market consensus of the 1990s.
That says a lot about his choice of allies, which seems to be based on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no matter how gruesome he may be. What Corbyn doesn’t do is set aside a sentence or two, which he certainly could have, to acknowledge that his hero had a dark side vis a vis Jews. In our era of heightened racial tensions, it would have been an obvious thing to do. It’s a glaring omission.
In Hobson’s defense, when he referred to race as it relates to Jews and others, he didn’t share the foundation of Nazi ideology that racial characteristics are immutable. Hobson believed that whatever good or bad characteristics Jews or others may have was due to their environment and could be fixed through social reforms.
The anti-Semitism of the political right has a longer, deeper and more violent history than that of the left. Its preoccupation with nation and traditional, Christian values had little room for Jews. The left’s universalism and its general focus on class and the power of human reason, all of which Hobson shared, helped it overcome its antipathy to capitalists and the Jews who were often at its forefront.
That has changed. The left has largely dropped the idea of class conflict in favor of racial and gender politics. The idea is that who you are is more important than what you believe or what you’ve achieved, hence the internal politics of the Women’s March, or the Democrats’ anxiety over the possibility that their 2020 presidential candidate may end up being a white male. Even more worrying is that the left has become fundamentally pessimistic. It is less convinced that the social dichotomy of the oppressed and marginalized versus the oppressors and privileged can be solved or even substantially mitigated. The system is impossibly rigged, so politics is more about struggle than about solutions.
In this worldview, Jews are at a very problematic position. We are regarded as part of the privileged elite and, even more damningly, associated with Israel, which many on the left regard as a vestige of old-time imperialism. The left isn’t anti-Semitic, but it is showing signs of growing discomfort with Jews as Jews, and doesn’t feel as bothered by anti-Semitism as it should be.