On Studying Fascism and Antisemitism

12 Apr 2013 by CST

The Wiener Library’s conference of 7th March 2013 on the history of British Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Jewish Defence included lectures by Professor Nigel Copsey and Dr John Richardson on the evolution of fascism from its 1930s version to the present; and how its public face has also changed.

Neither speaker directly addressed modern antisemitism, nor anti-Zionism, but their lectures provide useful analogies with both topics, particularly the question of how far a modern phenomenon can stray from its earlier types before becoming something new altogether. Just how elastic can a term such as fascism, or antisemitism, actually be - before we have to find a new word for them?

Professor Copsey noted that for decades after World War Two, most academics airily assumed that fascism was pretty much dead. By the mid 1980s, they were forced into a rethink by the electoral success of the French Front National. Prof Copsey noted that Europe had not exactly stood still during this time, and he asked if the changes in Europe and its far right parties meant that they should be termed fascist, neo-fascist, populist, nationalist, or just what exactly? If a 21st Century ‘fascist’ party is basically pro-free market and is not committed to overthrowing democracy, can it still be properly called fascist, or do we need to call it something else?

Both academics stressed that categorising modern groups as being fascist, neo-fascist, populist etc must not obscure their sheer variety. The English Defence League differs from the British National Party, both differ from the French Front National, which differs from the Flemish Vlaams Blok; and none are the same as Golden Dawn in Greece.

Dr Richardson observed that after WW2 there was no electoral cachet for any party that admitted to being fascist. Such groups had to either subtly rehabilitate fascism, or disassociate from it. So, we cannot - and do not - take such groups at their word, regarding whether they are, or are not, fascists, pro-Nazis etc.

Dr Richardson used antisemitism as one marker regarding the true ideology of fascist groups. He charted the shifts in antisemitic discourse - sometimes blatant, sometimes coded, sometimes both - within the post-war UK fascist publication Combat as a striking example of this phenomenon.

For example, when the British National Party took over Combat in 1960, it replaced existing euphemisms about “money power” and “international finance” with explicit mentions of Jews. In 1962, the BNP split and openly Nazi elements lost control of Combat: whereupon the Jews disappeared again, replaced by a Washington/Moscow common enemy - a conspiracy that was implicitly Jewish, but did not need to be explicitly stated as such.

By 1965, new race relations laws had further tightened Combat’s language, but its readers still understood that “immigrants” meant non-white people. So, the racist ideology remained, with the wording now further encoded. Similarly, articles about Jews (or those alleged to be) did not need to actually state that the individuals were Jewish: the coding was understood, just as it had been in “money power” and “international finance”.

These lessons about defining and recognising various fascisms can assist our understanding of antisemitism, especially concerning its contested relationship with anti-Zionism (which, we must remember, is itself a hugely varied term). Some useful points:

• After WW2, many educated people assumed that fascism was pretty much dead: and they made the same mistaken assumption about antisemitism. It took decades for these assumptions to change.  

• There is no intellectual cachet for any ideology or group that admits to being fascist: and neither is there for anyone who admits to being antisemitic. You cannot rely solely on the word of someone who denies being a fascist. Similarly, you cannot rely solely on the word of someone who denies being antisemitic.

• There are big variations between different ‘fascist’ groups. Analysis of groups, including their distinctions (such as for or against democracy) must be rigorous. The same rigour is also needed when studying openly antisemitic groups, of which there are relatively very few; and especially when studying anti-Zionist groups, of which there are relatively very many. These anti-Zionist groups come from all manner of ideological positions, ranging from the obviously antisemitic to the obviously not antisemitic (such as Bundists).

• Environments and contexts change and the words that are used change accordingly. This is the nature of things. It is political and ideological evolution; and the course of history. There is a need to attract and retain adherents, to comply with what is legally and/or socially acceptable and you must react to whatever is politically relevant. In Europe, fascism has its post WW2, post Soviet bloc and existing European Union context. Antisemitism has its post Holocaust and Israel context. Neither subject can remain in its 1930s/40s variant under these conditions.

The above is not to claim that either fascism or antisemitism are forever inevitable. Nevertheless, in their recent pomp, both phenomena clearly fulfilled deep needs for millions of adherents. It is most unlikely that the psychological drivers behind them have diminished to irrelevancy. 

Today, it is quite straightforward to argue that fascism did not die after its disgrace and its defeat in WW2, and to observe that it lay low and adapted until contemporary circumstances enabled it to re-emerge in various forms. Some recalibrations went deeper than others, some merited the old label and some arguably did not. But for all the changes, these different groups essentially remained under the same part of the political spectrum, and they are still reflexively opposed by those who defend liberal principles.

Once again, the same guidance ought to apply to antisemitism, especially as it predates fascism by centuries, millennia even. And yet there are vital contrasts. For example:

• Those who afford the most elasticity to terms such as ‘fascism’ and ‘far Right’, or even ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’, will too often be those who also argue for the most restrictive definition of antisemitism, boiling it down to a forever fossilised WW2 Nazi model, in which an antisemite must profess to hate all Jews as Jews. This, despite antisemitism having had so many variations throughout its long history (which, other than Nazism, mostly offered escape via conversion). 

• The impulse to be wary of suspected fascists is not repeated with antisemitism. All too often, those accused of antisemitism are defended, rather than scrutinised. (The exception being if the accused is allegedly a white fascist.) Similarly, some circles may express deep concern about awakening or encouraging fascism by, for example, debating immigration: but apply different standards and analyses regarding antisemitic consequences arising from anti-Zionist or extreme anti-Israel agitation.

• Fascists and anti-fascists share the same basic meaning of the word “fascism”. Zionists and anti-Zionists do not share the same basic meaning of the word “Zionism”. Most Jews self-identify as Zionists, so many perceive anti-Zionism as quite obviously being anti-Jewish, within the antisemitic ballpark, part of the antisemitic family tree, call it what you will. Consequently, there is an associated perception that the word “Zionist” operates (either intentionally or not) as a code for “Jew”: and that Jews are the likeliest, or only, physical target for rhetorical hatred of “Zionists”. Many anti-Zionists and opponents of Israel are oblivious to this perception, which - accurate or not - is heartfelt.

• Fascism and antisemitism are words that bear enormous historical weight. The word ‘fascism’ sits firmly within a wider context of far right politics. One may dispute whether a group is fascist, but compromise and calmly agree that it sits within a broader far right context. Antisemitism has a broader context of racism and prejudice, but this certainly does not assist anti-Zionism’s supporters and opponents to compromise upon its relationship with antisemitism.

• A disagreement over whether or not a group is fascist, tends not to rapidly descend into furious allegations of bad faith. By contrast, disagreements over antisemitism, especially regarding hatred of Zionism and/or Israel, are dominated by allegations of bad faith (in both directions).

It is this final point that really sums up the contrast when antisemitism, not fascism, is the subject of debate. To be more precise, the debate is most heated when Zionism or Israel are claimed to be the subject under scrutiny: but Jews perceive that they themselves are what is actually being scrutinised, or that it is they themselves who will end up suffering the consequences.  

Indeed, even the mere suggestion that a specific example of anti-Zionist or anti-Israel invective may be antisemitic is, in itself, taken by many as proof that “all criticism of Israel” is being castigated as antisemitic; that those expressing concerns are trying to shut up legitimate debate; and that it is all part of a callous exploitation of antisemitism to knowingly cover Israel’s (or Zionism’s) crimes. On the flip side, such responses are taken by many Jews as proof that something fundamentally antisemitic is at play: and so the vicious cycle of mutual alienation and contempt is spun again.

To conclude, this is where the contrast with the study and discussion of fascism is at its most profound. 

You can disagree with categorising the EDL as being fascist, without being reflexively denounced as a fascist and/or EDL sympathiser. Alternatively, you can argue that the EDL is indeed fascist, without being reflexively denounced as someone who wishes to shut down democratic debate in order to destroy English culture, heritage and nationhood.

If only the same standards of decency and solidarity prevailed when antisemitism, not fascism, was the subject of discussion...if only.


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