The war on Iraq has unleashed some familiar conspiracy theories in recent months, on both the right and the left. Lyndon LaRouche laid blame for the coming war at the feet of “a nest of Israeli agents inside the US government”; then Pat Buchanan blamed the US invasion of Iraq on a “cabal” of Jewish intellectuals willing to “conscript American blood to make the world safe for Israel.” On the other side of the tally, Democratic Representative James Moran declared, “If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war in Iraq, we would not be doing this,” while a Democratic New York City Council member, Robert Jackson, attributed opposition to a local antiwar resolution to Jewish colleagues who saw New York only as their “home away from home” and believed the resolution would “not be in the best interests of the State of Israel.” The idea that Jews loyal to Israel over America were driving the United States to war gained enough force to garner mention in the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and finally ended up at the feet of Colin Powell, who, in what was surely a historical first for a Secretary of State on the eve of armed conflict, was asked by a member of Congress to publicly disavow that a “cabal” was behind this war.
Somehow, though, despite the broad circulation–and broad denunciation–of this poisonous idea, only the left seems doomed to bear the taint of anti-Semitism. Why should this be so?
The furor over events in San Francisco leading up to the massive February antiwar marches is telling. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun, claimed that he was excluded from a list of potential speakers at the Bay Area event because he had publicly criticized ANSWER, one of the sponsors, for being anti-Israel. What might have been a minor back-room squabble went public when a group of left writers (many affiliated with The Nation) circulated a petition on his behalf and Lerner himself detailed his charges in the prowar Wall Street Journal. His story, headlined “The Antiwar Anti-Semites,” condemned “anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing on the left.” Letter writers to the Journal responded with barely concealed glee at Lerner’s outing of the left, one opining venomously that “the American far left would no more tolerate criticism of its anti-Semitism than the Communists and Nazis tolerated criticism of theirs.” Since that writer has certainly not been threatened with removal to the camps or the gulag, we can take his letter for what it really is: an attempt to blackmail “the far left” into silence on a crucial issue.
This fraught accusation of “left-wing anti-Semitism” surfaces so regularly that before considering it, we need to remind ourselves what anti-Semitism–the real thing–has actually looked like over the centuries. It had (and has) nothing to do with Israel or Zionism, but was rather a prototypical racist stereotyping, by means of which the alleged traits of certain individuals–“money-grubbing,” “pushiness,” moral degeneracy–are transformed via the alchemy of paranoid fantasy into the collective persona of “Jews” or “the Jew.”
For the anti-Semite, as for all racists, these racial distinctions are always invidious, never just descriptive. This aspect of anti-Semitism has at times been disguised, since whereas for most other racisms the stigmatized group is alleged to be both morally and culturally inferior, anti-Semitism often combines an allegation of moral degeneracy or social inferiority with a paranoid fear of a dangerous superiority, or envy of supposed intellectual or economic attainment. Envy, though, is as unpleasant as disdain, especially in the form of litanies of what “your people” have so wonderfully accomplished. For the anti-Semite, then, the Jew is not just Jewish; he stands for something, and it’s always something bad. At the same time, a collective personality having been established–the desire for world domination and control of international finance at its center–it is also read backward onto individuals, so that for the anti-Semite every Jew is potentially both a bearer of the group character and a part of the conspiracy.