The stubborn roots of modern anti-Semitism

Scourge: Keir Starmer has tried to draw a line under debates about Labour anti-Semitism. © Getty

Will the world ever be free of it? A new report into anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party has led to the suspension of its former leader – but some see a much more intractable problem.

Heads rolled at the very top of the Labour Party yesterday as the row about anti-Semitism in its ranks raged on.

The former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has now been suspended, following the publication of a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into Labour and anti-Semitism.

Corbyn’s suspension came not because of the findings of the report, but because of his response that the scale of prejudice in Labour was “overstated for political reasons”.

The problem of anti-Semitism, however, is far larger than one politician or one political party.

A poll by the American Anti-Defamation League suggests that up to one billion people around the world may harbour anti-Semitic views.

In Britain, anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise every year for the last four years. America saw its worst ever incident of anti-Semitic violence in 2018, the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The shooter, who killed 11 people, believed that Jews, and in particular the billionaire George Soros, were responsible for encouraging immigration from Central America.

Soros is also regularly attacked by anti-immigrant politicians around the world. Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orbán, for example, has passed a series of harsh anti-immigration laws colloquially referred to as the “Stop Soros” laws. Turkey’s PM Tayyip Erdogan has likewise attacked Soros.

The image of Soros and other rich and powerful Jews as sinister puppet masters echoes baseless claims about the Rothschild family that have been repeated since 1846.

The roots of this particular form of racism run deep around the world.

While Europe’s most murderous bout of anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust, and the killing of six million Jews, the wide-spread hatred existed long before Hitler. Some argue that it will persist as a permanent part of European cultural DNA.

In the middle ages, Jews in Europe were often falsely accused of monstrous crimes, now commonly referred to as blood libel.

Some say that prejudices against Jews simply mutate, so each generation of anti-Semites creates the Jewish conspiracy that serves it. Jews have even been blamed for the pandemic.

Fears of disloyal Jews working to undermine national identity are also eerily continuous throughout history, driving the Dreyfus Affair in 19th Century France, and the execution of the physician of Elizabeth I, Roderigo Lopez, in 1594.

Many argue similar prejudices inform modern-day left-wing criticisms of Israel and of others’ support for the Jewish state.

When American congresswoman Illhan Omar tweeted in 2018 that US support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins”, for example, her critics argued that she was repeating a version of the same trope.

Some fear that all it takes is another crisis to make gentiles look to their old scapegoat.

Will we ever be free of anti-Semitism?

Old habits

We are making progress, say some. The kind of action taken today by Labour leader Keir Starmer shows a serious commitment to fighting anti-Semitism in Britain. Many people are becoming more aware of the way certain tropes emerge from the long history of anti-Semitism. The rise in anti-Semitism can be fought if people are vigilant about keeping toxic ideas and narratives out of public life.

And yet there is no shortage of anti-Semites, say others. When politicians on the right repeat arguments about “cultural Marxism”, as they have done in the UK, US and Australia, they are drawing on anti-Semitic tropes, even as they criticise anti-Semitism on the left. The rise of anti-Semitism is entwined with intractable global problems, for which prejudice provides easy answers that will be hard to root out.

You Decide

  1. Do you think getting to know people who are different from you makes one less prejudiced?
  2. Is it possible to draw a line between criticism of minority religious practices and of that minority?


  1. The Jewish festival of Sukkot marks the period that the Jews wandered in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. During Sukkot, a family may eat and sleep in a Sukkah, a kind of hut constructed to symbolize the wilderness. Draw a Sukkah that you would want to live in temporarily.
  2. Anti-Semitism has sometimes been called the socialism of fools. Is the view that a wealthy elite has too much power always tainted with conspiratorial thinking? Write your reasons for agreeing or disagreeing.

Some People Say...

“It is not an ideology, instead it is a protean unstable combination of received ideas. Anti-Semitism has a place in the history of ideas only in the sense that a burglar has a place in the house.”

Anthony Julius, British lawyer, literary critic and campaigner against anti-Semitism

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that anti-Semitism in on the rise around the world. Eighty percent of European Jews feel that antisemitism in their country has increased. The controversy over antisemitism on the British left is only a small part of a wider worry about the safety of Jews both in Europe, American and the Middle East. The discourse of anti-Semitism takes many forms, and adapts itself to a variety of environments around the world.
What do we not know?
One key area of debate is how far current attempts to deal with the problem will go towards eradicating such a deep-seated prejudice. Anti-Semitism can be found in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer and of Shakespeare, for example, and underpinning many common phrases and habits of thought. Many thought that this form of hatred was a thing of the past, but it seems to return in new shapes.

Word Watch

Informally, from the latin word for talking. Something that you would say in conversation but not in writing.
The first charges against the Rothschild banking family, one of the wealthiest families in Europe were published in a pamphlet in 1846 by an author going under the pen name of “Satan”. They alleged that Nathan Rothschild fatally undermined Napoleon’s efforts at the battle of Waterloo, for his own gain. Since then the family has often been seen behind major world events by more paranoid elements.
Blood libel
The term stems from the accusation (false and therefore a libel) that the Jews drank blood or used the blood of children in their rituals. This lie originated in England in the 12th century, and the hatred of Jews the stories provoked resulted in the expulsion of all Jews from the country in 1290. They were only permitted to return in 1657.
Dreyfus Affair
A French soldier, Captain Albert Dreyfus, of Jewish descent, was accused of conspiring with the Germans. The resulting trials, lasting from 1894-1905, split French society, and revealed the huge extent of anti-Semitism in French public life. Dreyfus was ultimately exonerated.
Roderigo Lopez
Lopez was a Portuguese “Converso”, a man of Jewish origin who had converted to Catholicism. He fled persecution and took up residence in England where he became doctor to the Queen. In 1594, he was accused, most likely falsely, of trying to poison Elizabeth. He was hanged, drawn and quartered.
All about the Benjamins
A slang term meaning all about money. The Benjamin in question is Benjamin Franklin, who appears on the American $100 bill.
An established pattern of phrasing or thought. A convention.
A non-Jewish person
The scapegoat was a goat who was sent away into the wilderness and believed to carry away the sins and impurities of the tribe. The term is now used to refer to any person or group who is forced to bear blame for something they did not do.

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