Two phenomena: anti-Semitism and American class conflict. Is there any connection between them? In a letter to this newspaper, the noted venture capitalist Tom Perkins called attention to certain parallels, as he saw them, between Nazi Germany’s war against the Jews and American progressives’ war on the “one percent.” For comparing two such historically disparate societies, Mr. Perkins was promptly and heatedly denounced.
But is there something to be said for his comparison—not of Germany and the United States, of course, but of the politics at work in the two situations? The place to begin is at the starting point: with the rise of anti-Semitism, modernity’s most successful and least understood political movement.
The German political activist Wilhelm Marr, originally a man of the left, organized a movement in the 1870s that charged Jews with using their skills “to conquer Germany from within.” Distinguishing the movement that he called anti-Semitism from earlier forms of anti-Judaism, Marr argued on professedly rational grounds that Jews were taking unfair advantage of the emerging democratic order in Europe, with its promise of individual rights and open competition, in order to dominate the fields of finance, culture and social ideas. Though some of Marr’s rhetoric and imagery was based on earlier stereotypes, he was right to insist that anti-Semitism was a new response to new conditions, channeling grievance and blame against highly visible beneficiaries of freedom and opportunity.
Anti-Semitism accused Jews of undermining Christian authority and corrupting the German legal system, the arts and the press. Jews were said to be rabid internationalists spreading Bolshevism—and ruthless capitalists exploiting for their own gain the nation’s natural and human resources. To ambitious politicians seeking office, to rulers of still largely illiterate populations, “the Jews” became a convenient catchall explanation for deep-rooted and sometimes intractable problems.
But though the origins of modern anti-Semitism may be traced to Germany, anti-Semitism itself remains sui generis and cannot be simply conflated with either Germany or Hitler. True, the latter gained power on a platform of anti-Semitism and then proceeded to put his Final Solution into effect, but the modern organization of politics against the Jews is independent of Nazism—and of fascism, since the Italian variant did not specifically target the Jews. Features of anti-Semitism are present in other political movements, on the left fully as much the right.
The parallel that Tom Perkins drew in his letter was especially irksome to his respondents on the left, many of whom are supporters of President Obama’s sallies against Wall Street and the “one percent.” These critics might profitably consult Robert Wistrich, today’s leading historian of anti-Semitism. His “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel” (2012) documents the often profound anti-Semitism that has affected socialists and leftists from Karl Marx to today’s anti-Israel movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions. It was Marx who said, “The bill of exchange is the Jew’s actual god,” putting a Jewish face on capitalism and accusing both Judaism and capitalism of converting man and nature into “alienable and saleable objects.”
Herein lies one structural connection between a politics of blame directed specifically at Jews and a politics of grievance directed against “the rich.” The ranks of those harping on “unfairly” high earners include figures in American political life at all levels who have been entrusted with the care of our open society; in channeling blame for today’s deep-rooted and seemingly intractable problems toward the beneficiaries of that society’s competitive freedoms, they are playing with fire.
I say this not only, and not even primarily, because some of those beneficiaries happen also to be Jews. So far, mainstream American politicians and supporters of movements like Occupy Wall Street have confined their attacks to the nameless “one percent,” and in any case it is doubtful that today any U.S. politician would be electable on an explicitly anti-Jewish platform.
My point is broader: Stoking class envy is a step in a familiar, dangerous and highly incendiary process. Any ideology or movement, right or left, that is organized negatively—against rather than for—enjoys an inherent advantage in politics, mobilizing unappeasable energies that never have to default on their announced goal of cleansing the body politic of its alleged poisons.
In this respect, one might think of anti-Semitism as the purest and most murderous example of an enduring political archetype: the negative campaign. That campaign has its international as well as its domestic front. Modern anti-Zionism, itself a patented invention of Soviet Communism and now the lingua franca of the international left, uses Israel just as anti-Semitism uses Jews, directing grievance and blame and eliminationist zeal against an entire collectivity that has flourished on the world scene thanks to the blessings of freedom and opportunity.
Herein lies a deeper structural connection. On the global front today, the much larger and more obvious beneficiary of those same blessings is the democratic capitalist system of the United States, and the ultimate target of the ultimate negative campaign is the American people. Anyone seeking to understand the inner workings of such a campaign will find much food for thought in Mr. Perkins’s parallel.
Ms. Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of “Jews and Power” (Schocken, 2007) and “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” (Princeton, 2013).