Politics in our time is about defending democracy against an arrayed series of related attacks that we might call ‘populist’. Each populism is at heart an irrational conspiracy fantasy. Each insists that democracy is fake and each populism blames some group of our fellow citizens for all our troubles, demonising them as ‘enemy of the people’.
It is not accidental that antisemitism is making a comeback as populism elbows its way back into mainstream politics. This fact is hugely consequential, not only for Jews but for anybody who wants to participate in the defence of democratic life.
Similarly, anti-Zionism constructs the ‘Israel’ that it positions it as being central to, or symbolic of, they key evils on the planet.
If that is right, then it follows that the defence against populism will also have to be a defence against antisemitism. Antisemitism is not a parochial issue about one small group of people. Opposing antisemitism is not to take one side in the Israel-Palestine conflict, a local conflict far away which we could choose to stay out of.
Antisemitism is the form of appearance of antidemocratic politics, not far away but here, not only concerning Jews but concerning us all.
Let me be clearer about what I mean by ‘populism’. The Corbyn, Trump and Brexit movements have quite a lot in common. There are many similar movements around the world: AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, the ruling parties in Italy, Austria, Turkey, Brazil, Russia, Hungary and Poland.
These are not yet totalitarian movements but they share a number of the characteristics by which philosopher Hannah Arendt defined twentieth century totalitarianism. They are proto-totalitarian movements; precursors to totalitarianism; movements which prepare the culture for the real thing. Jihadi Islamist movements fit in here too.
These movements are contemptuous of what exists and they see nothing of value in the democratic state as it is. There is no critique of Westminster, Brussels or Washington politics, no constructive thinking about how to improve life, only the promise to tear it all down and start again from zero.
Populism hates the democratic balance between liberty and community. It builds an atmosphere of fervour in which individuals rationalise their own happiness as the price payable for eventual Utopia. Populism does not struggle for specific improvements; it is only interested in the sunlit uplands of tomorrow.
Populist movements harness the politics of resentment to the advancement of those who assume the right to speak for ‘the people’. Anybody in the way is treated as ‘enemy of the people’. They build personality cults around leaders who act as empty ciphers into which every individual can pour their own dreams. The leaders offer us revenge against those who we can blame for our own feelings of inadequacy.
The populist demagogues construct communities of the good and they cast out those who do not fit. The Corbynites call the bad people, the ‘one per cent’, the Zionists, the bankers or the elites. The Brexiters call them betrayers of the will of the people or they denounce those who side with foreign nations and bureaucrats against ‘us’. There is much contempt for the ‘liberal elite’, cosmopolitans, globalists and citizens of nowhere. Populism embraces nostalgic nationalism but it has one eye on a more radical project for the whole of humanity.
Populism tends to explain inconvenient facts by reference to ‘fake news’, conspiracies which are said dishonestly to manufacture the consent of ordinary folk to their own subordination. It is contemptuous of science and expertise; only the charismatic leader knows. Witness President Trump’s recent advice on technical issues to the Paris fire service.
The populists do not understand markets and they are itching to repeat the disastrous economic policies of 1930s style protectionism and economic nationalism.
What does all this contempt for democratic culture, norms and politics have to do with antisemitism?
Antisemitism was at the very centre of Stalinist Communism and Nazism. These movements, by which people who felt powerless aspired to world domination, required a global, powerful and cunning ‘other’. Antisemitism is always projection. If you want to know what antisemites dream about, listen carefully to what they accuse Jews of doing.
The antisemitic construction of ‘the Jew’ has been forged over centuries by a succession of distinct antisemitic movements, each adding to the narrative and emotional vocabulary of the other. It sits there in our culture and we think it is a thing of the past, too vulgar and awful to constitute a contemporary threat. But antisemitic ways of thinking are nevertheless entrenched in our subconscious and are tempting resources for anti-democratic movements because they give material shape to unendurable, abstract, fear and fury.
Conspiracy fantasy is not always antisemitic but it is always ripe for it. The bad news is that we are all going to have to educate ourselves in the stealthy vileness of antisemitism. We cannot leave it to the Jews because it is not only about them. But we are resistant to this bad news. Nobody wants to be seen as the pro-Jew party, we prefer a universal message.
We cannot understand contemporary populism without understanding its relationship to antisemitism; but if we make that understanding explicit, then people will recoil against it and the message will be lost.
Of course it is far from true that every Labour supporter, Trump supporter or Brexiter is antisemitic. Indeed all of these movements have Jewish support, people who mobilise their own identities politically and publicly in an effort to protect their movements from such accusations. The angry denials of antisemitism are plausible because they are genuine. People are not aware of the antisemitism in their own movements, whether it is explicit, whether it is hidden and difficult to interpret, or whether, so far, their ideologies are only similar in shape and content to antisemitic ones.
What is true is that populist movements animate conspiracy fantasy and they denigrate ordinary democratic processes, cultures and ways of thinking. And where that is allowed to happen, antisemitism becomes hugely attractive, and it finds fertile ground, while opposition to antisemitism looks like special pleading and Jewish tribalism.