“Left-Wing Antisemitism is Dangerous Because it Denies its Own Existence”: Interview with Historian Philip Spencer

Philip Spencer

Philip Spencer gave a keynote introductory address at CHGS’ International Symposium on April, 2017 entitled Comparative Genocide Studies and the Holocaust: Conflict and Convergence. Following the symposium, he and Bruno Chaouat (UMN, French and Italian) gave a book talk (recorded in full here), where Spencer introduced the book he co-authored with sociologist Robert Fine, Antisemitism and the Left. On the return of the Jewish question. After his talk, Spencer sat with Wahutu Siguru (UMN PhD Candidate, Sociology), Alexandra Tiger (UMN undergrad in Sociology), and Demetrios Vital (CHGS Outreach Coordinator), and offered thoughtful, warm, and inspiring answers to a range of questions on topics in his book and talks. What follows are three of those questions and answers.

In your talk, you made reference to the idea that antisemitism was more of an “eternal temptation.” Would you expand on that?

When I say “eternal,” I don’t mean it’s going to go on forever. I mean “repetitive.” There are times when antisemitism is less tempting and times when it’s more tempting, for sure, so one does have to contextualize it.

People have asked me to explain antisemitism in terms of a general overarching theory, which I haven’t tried to develop […] except to talk about the recurrence of antisemitism, the attack on Jews, as revealing something about the society around it.

As I said, I don’t have a wholly developed theory on antisemitism in all its incarnations. In this work I look at people who identify with the left, with a progressive point of view, who perceive something wrong in society, to find a superficial explanation for it and to attribute those evils to a particular group. That’s not the same, by the way, as scapegoat theory, which I think is a misleading way to put it, because it suggests that people are doing this consciously. They’re not saying, “Well, we don’t like something, so let’s blame somebody for it.” It doesn’t operate at that level.

The temptation to identify this group as the source of all evils – not the same as scapegoats – is a recurring temptation that we can discern. Whatever the evils are, whether they’re problems with the stability or homogeneity of the nation, health of the nation, vitality of the economy, and so forth. These can all be attributed to the Jews.

And now, in its latest incarnation, which I say more about in the book.

We live in an unjust and unequal world.

In Europe – as goes a version of this argument – since the Holocaust, we’ve constructed a post-national European community. This post-national society shows that we can understand how to build a community in a more diverse way, not based on ethnicity, particularity, and so forth. Israel, by contrast, is – in this line of argument – a uniquely backward society because it hasn’t learned the lessons of the Holocaust. We Europeans (who committed the Holocaust) have understood the lessons of it, but you Jews, you haven’t understood it. So it’s tempting to think this way of the problems of the world. And so on: the problems of the Middle East? It’s the Jews. It leads to the idea of Israel being the greatest threat to world peace, which is preposterous and empirically impossible.

Now, why the Jews should be picked out is a very difficult question to answer, and there are various versions of this, some more persuasive than others. But all I’ll say about it is this, and you can see it in Arendt, in the beginning of The Origins of Totalitarianism, she tells a joke about antisemitism (it’s an old joke):

Hitler is giving a speech and says, “All the problems go back to the Jews!”

And a man in the back yells, “And the cyclists!”

Hitler continues, “…all the problems in our political system go back to the Jews!”

The man in the back yells, “And the cyclists!”

Hitler continues, “…Germany’s weak, falling apart. Whose fault is it? The Jews!”

“And the cyclists!”

“Look,” Hitler says, “every time I say it’s the Jews, you say, ‘And the cyclists.’ Why the cyclists?”

“Well, why the Jews?”

[Laughter] … But it’s a question that we have to answer.


In your talk, you addressed the difficulty in defining antisemitism. I’m curious if there’s a more specific way of defining antisemitism in the left as opposed to the right, and if those are the same thing?

Right-wing and left-wing antisemitism do differ in profound ways. What I am looking at in this book is a left-wing version. Or rather a failure to respond to it, a tolerance of it, a collusion with it, and at times a use of it. Which is troubling to me. It seems to me that that derives not from a consciously racist stance, in its beginning – because it comes from people who think of themselves as anti-racists, egalitarian, progressives interested in social justice. One wouldn’t find that on the right. And they are derived from an earlier, deeper view, among people who think of themselves as universalists. One doesn’t find those on the right.

What one finds on the left is an antisemitism that emerges within a very different frame of reference, and therefore gets accounted for initially in very different ways. But the effect on the targeted group, even if the group isn’t consciously targeted, is very serious. That doesn’t exclude the possibility that people who begin as universalists might end up as racists, and there are lots of cases… Bruno Bauer is a good example: Bauer began as left-wing universalist and ended as a straightforward right-wing antisemite.

So I don’t see them as the same. Which one poses a danger? I do not in any way minimize the danger of right-wing antisemitism. Antisemitism is a complex phenomenon and takes different forms in different societies. It’s quite mobile and can be picked up by lots of different groups in different ways in different times. Nor is left-wing antisemitism the greatest danger faced by Jews globally at any given time, but it’s very serious right now.

Left-wing antisemitism is dangerous because it denies its own existence.

Right-wing antisemites, generally speaking, say they are antisemites. The problem is taking them seriously. I think the mistake many people on the left make is to not take overt antisemites seriously. When people say they hate Jews, my inclination is to believe them. They do. If they say they hate Jews and want to kill them, they’re going to take measures to do it, then red alert. Overt antisemites often then get ridiculed, and overt antisemitism gets written off, on the left.

Left-wing antisemites tolerate or occlude, and absolutely deny that they’re antisemitic. That’s a different kind of problem. They often reverse the charge and use it as a counter-argument: “You’re only raising the idea of antisemitism to deflect from criticism of Israel.” Well, then you know you’re in trouble.


On universalism, what kind of universalism / universalist society should the left embrace to tackle antisemitism?

I take as a starting point the premise that humanity is diverse. Humanity is an extraordinarily rich and diverse species. There are dangers in thinking of diversity as group-based, for sure, and there are lots of ways one can think of “groups.” But my view is that if people wish to identify themselves as a group, and value and want to continue traditions, etc, there is something wonderful about this, provided that it’s premised on the recognition of others. And that one does not see a group as hermetically sealed.

I’m interested in diversity and hybridity, as opposed to a universalism which preaches one form of identity and society.

There are various ways of managing this politically, of establishing a legal basis for encouragement of diversity, while allowing that diversity to be freely chosen, and for people to move across unrestricted boundaries. In favor of recognition of groups, but not reification of groups. Multiculturalism and hybridity are all values to me, but they depend upon groups being able to celebrate values and traditions, and to be able to add to them.

It’s the reverse of antisemitism – which is also for some people a tradition, which people add to. This is the reverse. It’s a dynamic and open multicultural society that celebrates the presence of different groups, and the mobility within the society. It’s a universalism grounded in enrichment and celebration of diversity, tolerance, respect, and equal treatment.


Wahutu is a PhD Candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Minnesota. Wahutu’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa.

Demetrios Vital is Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. In this role he is responsible for the care and promotion of CHGS art and object collections, as well as working with the community in the development of programs, activities, and events.

Alexandra Tiger is a volunteer with CHGS aiding in the promotion of events. She is an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Sociology of Law, Criminology and Deviance with a minor in Family Social Science. Alexandra has interests in the legal response to domestic violence perpetrated in the Native American community and the concepts of collective memory and remembrance following atrocities.

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