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Is universalism the true cause of left-wing anti-Semitism?

15 July 2019

10:05 AM

15 July 2019

10:05 AM

Why does the left have a problem with Jews? I don’t think the current analysis goes deep enough. We need to take two or three steps back from recent political events.

The key concept is universalism. Socialism is a universalist ideology: it thinks it has a solution to the world’s problems that everyone ought to subscribe to. The right by contrast is semi-universalist: it thinks free markets are good for everyone, but this is more theoretical than heartfelt, and it balances this with some degree of nativism.

Socialism has had an anti-Semitic streak from the start: Marx was an anti-Semite as well as a Jew. The seeming contradiction makes a lot of sense when you realise that socialism inherits and adapts the Jewish belief in universal justice, liberation from servitude and the day of judgement. But the true universalism is for all people, not just ‘the chosen people’, said Marx and his followers. The parent tradition must be opposed: its exclusivism blocks the true universalism. The aura of ‘social justice’ must be taken from the Jews: they must be exposed as betraying this ideal with their exclusivism.

Christianity faced the same issue of course. Many early Christians felt that while Jews still claim to be God’s true people, the Christian message is blocked, for their rituals and denial of Jesus puts the good news into doubt. Only recently have Christians (and alas not all) begun to get their heads round the strange mysterious fact that God seemingly wills the existence of his original chosen people alongside what we Christians consider his fuller revelation.

Doctrinaire socialists are very like those early Christians: they feel that their cause is undermined by a tradition that awkwardly overlaps with it. How can the Jewish socialist really care about universal social justice when she also subscribes, however vaguely, to the exclusivism of Judaism? Is her heart really in socialism, or is she more akin to the non-socialist sort of Jews who are so good at capitalism?

The strange fact about Judaism is that as well as inspiring the great universalist movements of the West, it also casts a sceptical eye over them, reminding them that there’s a crack in everything, that they are merely human. Ideologues hate to hear this.

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