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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Reflections on the “new antisemitism”: Revisiting Lenin and the national question

Reflections on the “new antisemitism”: Revisiting Lenin and the national question

Jonah Henkle

Platypus Review 163 | February 2024

ON NOVEMBER 15, New York University announced the opening of a new Center for the Study of Antisemitism. Among its central goals, “the Center will research both classical forms of antisemitism as well as the ‘new antisemitism’ and its links to anti-Zionism.”[1] With the hermeneutic suspicion of the anti-Zionist Jew and Marxist-Leninist I am, I ask: what is this “new antisemitism,” and what is to be done? Here, as I frequently do, I went to consult Lenin.

A product of early 20th-century Europe, Lenin was no stranger to antisemitism. His principled Marxist analysis of what can be referred to as “classical antisemitism” can be the reference point for our rigorous analysis of the so-called “new antisemitism” and its relationship to contemporary Palestinian national liberation in the wake of the Israeli government’s siege of Gaza beginning on October 7, 2023.

Jewish scholars formed the theory of the “new antisemitism” in the late 20th and early 21st centuries amid growing anti-Zionist sentiment amongst the Western Left.[2] According to Irwin Cotler,

In a word, classical or traditional antisemitism is the discrimination against, or denial of, the right of Jews to live as equal members of a free society; the new antisemitism — incompletely, or incorrectly, as “anti-Zionism” (since not all critiques of Zionism are anti-Semitic) — involves the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon, the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations.[3]

These framings from the Zionist camp slip quickly into the crude reductionist trick of conflating the Jewish people with the Israeli nation-state. Though Cotler claims, “not all critiques of Zionism are anti-Semitic,” Cotler’s position is characterized by denouncing “denial of, the legitimacy, if not the existence, of the State of Israel” as “political antisemitism.”[4] This intentional blurring of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in one motion construes the criminal Israeli state (with its occupation, policies of apartheid, and genocidal rhetoric) as a Subject, which one can be racist against and renders “self-hating” the many Jews who join the call to criticize Israel.

As Cotler and his compatriots outline their theory for a “new antisemitism,” it is clear the primary concern is with the preservation of Israeli apartheid by painting its outspoken critics as antisemitic. Political scientist Norman Finkelstein thoroughly documents the ways in which “American Jewish elites were, in effect and in plain sight, cynically appropriating ‘anti-Semitism’—a historical phenomenon replete with suffering and martyrdom, on the one hand, and hatred and genocide, on the other—as an ideological weapon to defend and facilitate ethnic aggrandizement.”[5] For a contemporary account of the genealogy of Zionists’ misappropriation of antisemitism in favor of their political program of Jewish supremacy, Finkelstein’s book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Antisemitism and the Abuse of History (2008) is painstaking. What then of the radical critique of Jews and non-Jews alike? The existence of an anti-Zionist Jewish Left, from the days of the Jewish Labor Bund to the present activism of organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza, clearly highlights the internal contradictions of the theory of the “new antisemitism.” However, these contradictions are less apparent in the secular struggle for Palestinian liberation, let alone its Muslim factions. As a Left, we must bear out in our theory and our political support for the Palestinian National Liberation Movement and defenses against the baseless and Islamophobic accusations of (new) antisemitism from reactionaries.

Aside from the reactionary tendencies implicit to “the new antisemitism’’ attempt to wrongly incorporate legitimate criticism of the Israeli state (anti-Zionism) with hatred of Jewish people (antisemitism), the new antisemitism theory has explicitly anti-Left roots. In their book The New Anti-Semitism (1974), Forster and Epstein dedicate an entire chapter to “The Radical Left,” and other chapters targeting black radicals like Malcolm X and so-called “Arabs and Pro-Arabs.” This text, which marks the foundation of the “new antisemitism” in academic discourse, claims,

The Radical Left, comprising elements of the New and Old Left, poses a threat to Jewish people. It is committed to the liquidation of Israel. And in attempting to fulfill that commitment it has turned its fire on those who support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state—principally Jews—while it warmly acclaims and is virtually allied with those seeking Israel’s demise—Arabs, their friends in the communist world and others espousing the cause of “Third World” peoples, defined by them as including the downtrodden of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, and American blacks.[6] 

As the theory of the new antisemitism seems to identify, albeit accurately, the oppressed people of the world and those who fight for them as their theoretical enemies, it must become ever clearer to us that where the “new antisemitism” is mentioned as a point of concern, it is done so in opposition to the Left and the liberation of oppressed peoples.

Enter Lenin — as the great class warrior he was, Lenin always deployed a class analysis in his writings on antisemitism. To this same effect, Lenin’s view of nationalism was not myopic or limited to a narrow determination of good or bad. Rather, Lenin sought to importantly distinguish between nationalism in the interest of the working class and liberal bourgeois nationalism. The national question then becomes a matter of strategy: how to unite people of all nations in a singular fight to overthrow capitalism. As Lenin argued, “Only by casting off every savage and foolish national prejudice, only by fusing together the workers of all countries into one alliance, can the working class become a force, offer resistance to capitalism, and achieve a serious improvement of its life.”[7]

How, then, does Lenin suggest we crush the ethnic and national chauvinism that seeks to divide the working class of which both classical antisemitism and the reactionary misappropriation of antisemitism to support Zionism are a part? Lenin reminds us that “International culture,” that is, our culture as communists, “is not non-national.” Returning to his class analysis, Lenin claims, “In every national culture there are, even if undeveloped, the elements of a democratic and Socialist culture, because in every nation there are toilers and exploited masses, whose conditions of life inevitably give rise to a democratic and Socialist ideology.”[8] Lenin does not call on us to crudely abolish national distinctions, the differences of ethnicity, religion, and race with which we identify. Instead, he calls upon us to fortify and develop internationalism, democracy, and socialism within every nation.

Proponents of a theory of the “new antisemitism” belong to the tradition of bourgeois nationalism Lenin identified in the early 20th century. It is a nationalism that serves elites in their oppression of other nations. In our current moment, it is a cynical nationalism of Jewish supremacy and the maintenance of Israeli hegemony, an ugly appendage of the American empire. Thus, for us anti-imperialists, our struggle for democracy and internationalism is the same struggle Lenin identified, albeit with historical and material contingencies. We must stay persistent against all forms of bourgeois nationalism, be that the old European antisemitism or the persistent anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian nationalism of Israeli Jewish ethnic supremacy. We do so by strengthening the progressive elements within our communities, be they white, black, Jewish, Arab, etc., and the internationalism between them. |P

[1] “NYU to Create Center for the Study of Antisemitism” (November 15, 2023), available online at <>.

[2] See Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein, The New Anti-Semitism (New York: McGraw Hill, 1974), and Irwin Cotler, “Human Rights and the New Anti-Jewishness: Sounding the Alarm,” Jewish People Policy Planning Institute 1 (November 2002): 3–10, available online at <>.

[3] Cotler, “New Anti-Jewishness,” 3-4.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Norman G. Finkelstein, “The Not-so-New ‘New Anti-Semitism,’” in Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Oakland: University of California Press, 2008), 27.

[6] Forster and Epstein, The New Anti-Semitism, 125.

[7] V. I. Lenin, “The Pogroms against the Jews” (1919), in Lenin on the Jewish Question (New York: International Publishers, 1934), 9, available online at <>.

[8] Ibid., 11.