Philosemitism: An Instrumental Kind of Love

Histories of philosemitism to try to grasp our current conjuncture and the necessity of an autonomous antiracism.

38 min read

A couple of years ago I had an exchange on Twitter with a prominent anti-left philosemite. When I called her a philosemite she appeared confounded by my use of the word as a pejorative. “What’s wrong with me loving Jews?” she seemed to say. This person had previously pointed to her rejection of “critical race theory,” and its supposed misrecognition of Jews, as a reason for her beef with the left. When someone on Twitter told her: “lmao white people can’t be victims of racism.”, she responded: “tell that to Holocaust victims.” On another occasion, when told “you are white,” she replied derisively: “so are Jewish people, who famously haven’t been subject to discrimination.”

In recent years, white philosemitic identification with Jews has been increasingly expressed through this subsumption of Jewish experience into defences or celebrations of whiteness. Some Jews and Jewish institutions actively help to strengthen this ‘white’ alliance, at the expense of Jews of colour. Many of these philosemites, who actively present themselves as anti-racists, seem to particularly delight in telling Black and Asian people how racist they are.

Last October, right-wing journalist Allison Pearson, emboldened by years of antisemitism discourse primed only to attack the left, criticised the BBC drama Ridley Road, which depicted a historical fight against fascist antisemitism in Britain. Pearson deemed the drama unrepresentative, as fascism “never took off here” and claimed the subject matter would have “made a brilliant Carry On-style farce”. As she saw it, the “serious threat in UK to Jews comes from the antisemitic Left.” This went too far even for one or two celebrity anti-Corbyn Jews and philosemites who pushed back, at which point Pearson flashed her credentials to her ungrateful critics: “That is grossly unfair”, she wrote, “Hard to think of any journalist who is a greater philosemite - and acknowledged as such by thousands of Jewish readers. Whose affection and respect I cherish.”

In recent years, white philosemitic identification with Jews is increasingly expressed through a subsumption of Jewish experience into defences or celebrations of whiteness.

We’ve had years of ‘debate’, in which white non-Jews empowered to speak for and over Jews. Gentile philosemites confidently took up positions seemingly speaking on behalf of “the Jewish community.” Labour Against Anti-Semitism, a factional organisation with reactionary political aims and a reactionary conception of Jewishness and antisemitism — was founded and led by non-Jews — though frequently mistaken for being Jewish. To bolster their legitimacy, philosemites frequently reference “majority Jewish opinion” to discredit or viciously attack Jews who disagree with them. Antisemitism is increasingly wielded as a political cudgel to attack struggles against racism and colonialism. Non-Jews have claimed that opposition to imperialism or capitalism, or support for BLM or BDS, are inherently antisemitic. This is a dangerous trajectory for oppressed people, including Jews, who are made avatars and human shields for white supremacy.

It is notable how self-congratulatory, how infused with a sense of their own heroism, many anti-Corbyn philosemites have been. Theirs is an ‘anti-racism’ requiring no sacrifice, learning, or introspection; one that neatly aligns with their nationalism. ‘Jewishness’ is used to represent a vapid “against left and right” politics, or a defence of ‘Western Civilisation’. These philosemites had tended to assume that antisemitism was a relic of a bygone era. That this “ancient prejudice” was worse than other racism, distinct from broad notions of “progress” and “backwardness,” and as such more offensive to their idea of themselves and their country.

Philosemitism, in its modern incarnation, often manifests as a gentile feeling—something it shares, as we will see, with similar movements in the 19th century—a feeling that they alone have discovered the unique suffering or genius of ‘the Jew’ , and must zealously spread this revelation like a gospel. And so we find philosemites defining themselves proudly as a “friend to the Jews” in their Twitter bio, or offering to wear Stars of David “in solidarity.” Some of them, it seemed, began to feel that they were victims of antisemitism—an identification that relied on their assumed right to appropriate historical Jewish experiences of oppression.

Philosemitism today goes largely undetected. It won’t fall foul of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. And yet it racialises Jews in dangerous ways. It plays a wider role in politics and discourses around racism and antiracism. Philosemitism can combine admiration, awe, unease and scorn. It is complicated by a historical and ongoing tendency, including among Jews, to earnestly affirm the ‘philo’ in philosemitism, to accept this “love,” while either ignoring or welcoming its attendant racial stereotypes, redolent of the heights of modern antisemitism. Sutcliffe and Karp have argued that,

Jews have been idealised not only in the Christian tradition, as ‘God’s chosen people,’ but also for such imputed virtues as their superior intelligence, economic acumen, ethnic loyalty, cultural cohesion, or familial commitment. These idealisations have at times had a significant impact on historical events, often directly affecting Jews’ status and standing, and for this reason have in some contexts been directly encouraged or even induced by Jews themselves.1

Eugenic ‘celebrations’ of Jewish ‘genius’ or even ‘power,’ put ‘positive’ spins on old conspiracies of Jewish elites. In 1845, the Spectator, posited a Zionist philosemitism, hoping that settler Jews’ “superior intelligence, industry, and wealth’ would help to inculcate ‘steady and industrious habits’ in the native Arab population.”2 This isn’t some historical curiosity, it’s the kind of writing that could have appeared in the Spectator — a magazine in which ‘Taki’ Theodoracopulos has long been at liberty to publish whatever racist drivel he might chance to emit — in any year between its founding and 2022. Oppressed and minoritised groups need allies. Solidarity and care are to be welcomed. But this is not that. Too often, philosemitism is characterised by appropriation and projection, a cloying pity or ‘admiration’ for Jewish plight and our endlessly ‘tragic’ history.

Solidarity and care are to be welcomed. But this is not that. Too often, philosemitism is characterised by appropriation and projection, a cloying pity or ‘admiration’ for Jewish plight and our endlessly ‘tragic’ history.

The term ‘philosemitism’ was coined at the same time as its supposed antonym in a late 19th century Germany pervaded by antisemitism. Both terms were coined by antisemites, one to affirm their proud and open hatred for the racial ‘semite,’ by which they meant Jews; the other to lampoon anyone who didn’t hate Jews as openly as they did by calling them Jew-lovers (the ‘philo-’ part of the word comes from the Ancient Greek φίλος (phílos), denoting love or friendship). Most Germans accused of being ‘philosemites’ at this time were keen to shrug off the label. Even if they ostensibly opposed the antisemitic political factions, they generally believed in antisemitic stereotypes and merely felt the open antisemites went too far in speech or actions. Everyone seemed in agreement that Jews were a particular, exceptional and distinct people apart, a “problem” towards which one couldn’t be ambivalent — you were either for or against. Antisemitism existed in cross-class forms, including among many as a foreshortened critique of capitalism and imperialism — an ‘anti-capitalism’ that protected state, nation, white supremacy, capitalism but could act as a release-valve for the legitimate grievances of exploited/oppressed people.

Philosemitism is not unambiguously antisemitic across history, nor is it the simple positive obverse of antisemitism. What’s more important is to try to untangle where this ‘love’ comes from, to view it in historical context, to see how different Jews have responded, and to see all the ways in which it isn’t really about Jews at all. Importantly, “Jews” are not the only group appropriated and instrumentalised. But when they are, it is because of specific histories.

By visiting different historical scenes of antisemitic and philosemitic relations between Christians and Jews in Europe we can see how such relations have operated in often non-distinct and complex ways. These can’t be simplistically mapped onto our own time, but exploring them will hopefully provide the longer context that’s often missing from the conversation.

The Jewish Favourite

We must understand these relations in the context of the proximity of Jews and Christians in Europe over the longue durée, in what has been a relationship of constant domination of Christian and secular power over Jews. The contours of these relations have, of course, shifted greatly over time, being swayed and reshaped through centuries that saw huge ruptures within Christian doctrine, the development of modern states, cities, nationalism and capitalist social relations.The Judeophobia of religious bigotry and persecution in medieval and early modern Europe gradually hardened into a racialised antisemitism. But through these years we can see forms of proto philosemitism too.

Mediaeval Christian Europe was a hostile environment for Jews, who were subject to persecution, sometimes resulting in mass expulsion and murder. Limits were commonly imposed on their rights to own land, property or weapons. Jews were forced to wear yellow stars or other distinctive clothing to mark them out. Their circumscription within the division of labour was further limited by their exclusion from guilds and certain trades. With usury forbidden by the Church, Jews had few other roles in society than as moneylenders, for which they were punitively taxed — essentially allowing monarchs to profit from the practice while morally opposing it. Mob violence, ritual murder and popular hostility arose from Church teachings and from a debtor/lender relation, as collective punishment was dished out to Jews in general, particularly when they were blamed for the Black Death. Attempts across Europe over the centuries to spatially segregate Jews and enforce restrictions on social and sexual mixing with Christians were increasingly formalised and intensified with the development of Ghetto systems, first named in Venice in 1516. Segregation, one solution to the ‘Jewish Problem,’ was supposed to protect Christians from the malign practices, influence, ‘disease’ of Jews and to exert pressure on Jews themselves to convert. Some ghettos and Jewish quarters included rich Jews of the merchant class but most were characterised by profound poverty. In many cases, Jews were permitted to operate only in second-hand trade, leaving many in precarious wage-labour or unemployed.

So Judeophobia was pervasive. Yet one form through which favour was shown to specific Jews was through the elevation of ‘Court Jews.’ In the early modern period — mostly in German and Austrian states though equivalent figures existed elsewhere in Western Europe — ‘Court Jews’, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, acted as bankers, moneylenders and advisers to Christian rulers. The great German banking families had been ruined by the Thirty Years War, and so outside capital was increasingly sought, allowing existing Jewish networks in trade and logistics to also move into high finance. ‘Court Jews’ commonly organised army supplies and state financing for war efforts. Jewish financiers were also favoured because they generally allowed more time for repayment. ‘Court Jews’ had privileges over other Jews:

There was a gulf between them and the mass of ordinary Jews who lived in ghettos, wore their distinctive dress and were sharply distinguished by their religious and other habits from the people amongst whom they lived. Naturally the court Jews early tried to gain permission to dwell outside the ghettos in the new quarters of the towns, and this wish was frequently granted.

In the early modern period after the great German banking families had been ruined by the Thirty Years War outside capital was increasingly sought, allowing existing Jewish networks in trade and logistics to also move into high finance.

Some Court Jews received honours and great wealth. But this ‘favour’ remained precarious. ‘Court Jews’ represented a means for rulers to make use of loyal outsiders: Jews who owed their elevated position to their direct relationship with the prince and who, as such, posed no threat to their rule: “the closeness that often developed between the ruler and the Court Jew was based on their common distance from the population at large.” Rulers could play troublesome insider interests off against each other. Financing provided by ‘Court Jews’ was used in the larger interest of modernising the state and economy, but also to lessen the power of the estates and guilds. Selma Stern wrote, of a 17th century German ruler:

He used the Jews in his struggle against the estates, just as he used them in his struggle against the guilds; he relied on them, just as he relied on all the non-privileged classes of his country, officials and officers, pastors and industrialists. They became one of the engines of war with which he destroyed the world of the estates and they were at the same time a part of the scaffolding with the help of which he erected the modern state.3

German and Austrian states were far behind France and England in this process. Their domestic systems of taxation and banking had insufficient capacity for state development and so they were more reliant on outside finance: “court Jews filled a real gap and many princes simply could not manage without them.”

Financial expansions, as Fernand Braudel and Giovanni Arrighi have shown us, have been a regular aspect of capitalist history from the late mediaeval period onwards.4 ‘Financialisation’ is not an invention of ‘neoliberalism’ or late 19th century monopoly. The association of Jews with finance emerges from the aforementioned histories of usury laws but also from Jewish existence as diaspora in a Europe of territorial kingdoms. Jewish trading networks had proven effective based on their far-flung connections of family and trusted personal relationships. Long distance trade (later encompassing colonies), trade fairs and the growth of money economies formed the basis for the development of the capitalist world market in the late mediaeval and early modern periods. Smaller, more mobile capitals transformed from merchant trade to the financing of the large territorial kingdoms. Between the 14th and 18th centuries, Florence financed the Vatican (among others); Genoese banking networks financed Iberian colonial expansion; Armenians operated in powerful merchant networks in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe; the German Fugger family financed monarchs and owned most of the mining in Central Europe. The Dutch republic innovated with a stock exchange and joint-stock companies, becoming, for a time, the financial centre of Europe. Unlike Jews, none of these groups — many of whom held far greater power and influence — are forever associated with high finance.

Court Jews became especially associated with the corruption and largesse of their age. Non-Jews rich and poor were outraged by the luxurious lifestyles of rich Jews specifically, similar to how the wealth of Raheem Sterling has different mediated racialised meanings today compared to how rich English footballers who are white are represented. This left ‘Court Jews’ particularly vulnerable to the caprice of rulers, if they chose not to repay their debts, or to popular violence or other factions once the protecting ruler died. Here we see an important feature of the ‘favour’ bestowed on Jews by ruling Euro-Christian powers—bound up with a racism not only of exclusion and segregation for most, but of exposure, hypervisibility and scapegoating for others. Some relatives of Court Jews were able to convert and effectively integrate into the ruling classes, to maintain their status with greater stability. But often, in the more immediate term, “as swift was the rise of many court Jews, as swift could be their decline”, or as Coser explains:

Specific Court Jews served specific princes on a particularistic basis. Hence the death of a ruler and the accession of a successor often caused the fall of the favorite of the preceding reign. The boon of particularism then turned to disaster. Often the Jew was thrown to the wolves, hung with the misdeeds of the previous regime. Even in his fall, he served his rulers. The guilds and estates who had bitterly opposed him not only as a competitor but as representative of the hated state, were now free to vent their resentment.

The Readmission or “English Tolerance”

Church, Crown, Barons and popular forces inflicted blood libels, executions and massacres upon England’s tiny Jewish population in the 1100s and 1200s. Usury was made illegal in 1275. With Jews effectively excluded from other ways of living, it wasn’t long before Edward I, badly in debt and under pressure from Parliament, issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, expelling all Jews from England and seizing their assets for the Crown. A small Jewish presence remained over the centuries. Some converted but still practised the old religion in secret, others were visitors with specialist roles at Court.

The Jewish population didn’t begin to grow again until Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate in the 1650s. At this time, a group of Iberian Sephardic merchants requested permission to settle in England. They plead their case on religious grounds—appealing to Puritan millenarian beliefs that the Jews must gather for the approaching end-times—as well as on economic grounds. By this time, the usury for which Jews had been expelled was widely practiced among Christians in England, so what was offered was not the specific role of usurers, but access to Jewish trade connections that could help England compete with the rise of Holland. The Whitehall Conference was convened to decide on the request, but no decisive outcome was reached. Cromwell “saw the value of establishing a community of Spanish and Portuguese merchants with trading connections in the West Indies, a region into which he intended to extend English naval power and economic influence.” Yet while he, and the monarchs that followed him, saw Jews “as a useful tool of trade and a reserve of financial support” (as with the favoured—‘Court Jews’—English monarchs “were forced to defend Jews against local interests in the West Indies as well as English merchants in Bristol and London.”

England’s Jewish population gradually exapanded through the second half of the 17th century but was still only in the hundreds by 1700. Synagogues were built but Jewish community long remained in a precarious state. In the 1660s, a conspiracy theory spread in the 1660s that the Jews intended to seize St. Paul’s Cathedral and convert it into a synagogue. Jews were also maligned by proto-nationalist arguments that they couldn’t assimilate or didn’t belong. The merchants of the City of London saw only competition and persistently tried to have Jews expelled again. David Cesarini writes:

In December 1660, months after the restoration, London merchants petitioned Charles II to expel the Jews or subject them to special taxes. They made further attacks on the Jewish community in January 1661, 1664 and 1674…In 1677 the Court of Alderman tried to prevent the immigration of ‘destitute aliens pretending to be Jews’ and in 1680 the Lord Mayor called for a review of the mediaeval anti-Jewish laws.

Eliane Glaser adds that

In 1685, after two brothers, Thomas and Carleton Beaumont, had 37 Jewish merchants arrested for not attending church, the king reassured the community again. There were several other attempts by English merchants and their supporters to disturb and expel the Jewish population, but they were resisted by both Charles II and James II.”5

Jews were concentrated in certain trades, excluded for generations from the City, from joint-stock companies, from the East India Company and from the powerful West India slavers cartel to which many MPs belonged. Some were slowly able to switch from trade to banking and stock brokerage but Jews remained marginal both in national life and in the formation of British capitalism.

Amidst such hostility, an element of philosemitism also existed. The rise of Puritanism saw a drive to further reform the Church. These zealous Protestants were more focused on the Old Testament and found themselves identifying with the ‘chosen’ Jews of scripture. A largely theoretical philosemitism of the 17th and 18th centuries held romantic visions of ancient Jewish history. Some learned Hebrew and idealised the ancient Jewish agrarian republic as a model for the good society. This focus on the scriptural Jew, however, led most of these philosemites to either ignore contemporary Jews entirely, or to condemn them as a personification of the commerce they saw as destabilising rural, democratic and/or national life. Adam Sutcliffe’s description of this instrumental use of ‘Jewishness’ will surely sound familiar:

The relationship between philosemitic Hebraism and actual living Jews is, then, extremely complicated. Judaism was certainly widely used in the seventeenth century as a form of conceptual token, deployed for its particular rhetorical authority in debates between the adversarial political and theological wings of Dutch and English Protestantism.6

By the 19th century, establishment historians had constructed a hagiography, around Jewish 'readmission.'' The story of Jewish return burnished England and Britain’s nationalist mythologisation of itself as uniquely 'tolerant.'

By the 19th century, establishment historians in Britain—both gentile and Jewish—had constructed a hagiography, a history-as-patriotism, around Jewish ‘readmission.’ As we’ve seen, Jews were by no means unambiguously welcomed back and yet the story of Jewish return under Cromwell, Charles II and William III combined has continued to burnished England and Britain’s nationalist self-mythologisation as uniquely ‘tolerant.’ In 1906, for example, government figures and Jewish communal leaders held commemorative celebrations to mark 250 years since the mythical ‘readmission’. This took place at the exact moment when the cogs of bureaucratic racial violence were being set in motion to implement the 1905 Aliens Act, Britain’s first immigration controls, specifically designed to limit Jewish immigration. The Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, missed the celebrations; but in a letter, he stressed Britain’s importance as a philosemitic exception to European antisemitism:

Had Continental Europe followed the example set by this country for the last two hundred and fifty years its history would not be stained by many crimes and many injustices which now stand on record as a perpetual reproach to Christian civilisation. That in this country there is no Jewish question, that race prejudices and religious prejudices, which elsewhere play so disastrous a part in the social organisation, are unheard of here, is due in no small measure to the fact that the Jews have shown themselves entirely worthy of the rights and privileges which they enjoy as citizens of this country, and that those rights and privileges have been granted to them in full measure.7

Victorian Saviours

Balfour’s assumption that hostility to Jews didn’t exist in Britain was by no means unique. It was widespread among Victorian gentiles. Some traced its eradication to the ‘readmission,’ others celebrated the sitting of the first Jewish MP in the House of Commons in 1858 as the crowning glory of Jewish ‘emancipation.’ Over the course of the 19th century, Jews were gradually allowed to enter into the professions, clubs and universities that had previously barred them. In other words, a minority of Jews joined Britain’s ruling class. However, this liberal “emancipation” for Jews, a process taking place unevenly across Europe, coincided with an era of totalising racial ideology. As Patrick Wolfe put it:

In eliminating the court Jew and his privileged successors, along with the cleavage between Eastern and Western European Jews, emancipation marked out the monolithic Jewishness that would become antisemitism’s object of persecution…uniformity would come to be constructed genetically, as an ineradicable hereditary mystique.8

Jews were more fixedly racialised in an age when ‘race’ was destiny. The abstracted figure of the rootless Jew came to personify modernity to various disgruntled constituencies. Jews were, and in some quarters still are, associated with the downsides of rampant capitalism and imperialism. Diverse antisemites have believed the “economic system is, or would be, the best of all possible worlds if only it were possible to achieve the removal of a tiny number of well-placed Jews, and to leave everything else—capital, labour, and rent—in the same situation as before.”9

Emancipated Jewish individuals in the ruling class found themselves, like the ‘Court Jews’ before them, singled out as corrupting influences and were targetted by emerging European nationalisms. Particularly in Germany and Italy, Jews became a primary minority against which the nation could be defined. In Britain, from the 1870s onwards, came the arrival of destitute Jewish refugees, escaping pogroms in the Pale of Settlement. They were greeted with state violence, trade union exclusion and much disdain from the settled Jewish community. ‘Alien’ Jews were deemed incapable of assimilation into varied notions of British nationhood, and were associated with crime, sexual violence, and devious self-interest. Eventually a national-racial alliance of conservatives, proto-fascists and workers organisations agitated successfully for what would become the first brick in the wall of Britain’s modern border regime.10 Meanwhile, a 19th century British philosemitism was flowering as “for a sector of Britain’s Protestant Establishment, support for Jews and opposition to antisemitism had become almost a test of enlightenment.”11 Victorian philosemitism mobilised around causes: news of Jews being oppressed abroad, in need of defence. Pogroms, persecution and blood libels perpetrated in Catholic, Eastern European or Muslim countries were condemned. Funds were raised, petitions organised, demonstrations held and diplomacy lobbied for. This philosemitism posited that antisemitism existed in uncivilised places, unlike Britain. This could include rival powers, as with France’s Dreyfus Affair. It insisted that Jews be granted rights elsewhere they’d only recently gained in Britain. The racial violence being objected to was the same violence Britain had deployed against Jews historically. Injustices borne by Jews in contemporary Britain were ignored, while people in Britain’s colonies were subjected to massacres, dispossession and domination throughout the century, largely without controversy in the metropole.

Philosemitic movements were composed of Liberals and Conservatives. Many were motivated by their Christianity, others by more secular impulses. Above all, gentiles embraced ‘the Jews’ for the glory of Britain. The instrumental motives of philosemitic ‘love’ were often quite clear. Many motivated by religion sought Jewish converts with the zeal of other Victorian rescue missions: Jews had to be saved from Judaism, just like ‘prostitutes’ had to be saved from sin. Jewishness, in the minds of gentiles, remained frozen in Old Testament imagery.

Victorian philosemitism posited that antisemitism existed in uncivilised places, unlike Britain. The racial violence being objected to was the same violence Britain had deployed against Jews historically.

Philosemites were early supporters of Zionism. They often combined a Christian Zionism with a British sense of civilisational superiority: an objectifying appropriation of Jews as a frozen ‘People of the Book’ or as a high-achieving ‘model minority.’ In 1867 the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, a Tory Lord, addressed a meeting at Mansion House that had been called to protest against an antisemitic act in Romania. He called the events a disgrace:

not only to modern civilisation, but to Christianity, and to everything that would exalt and dignify man. We should be distressed to hear of outrages perpetrated on any class of people in any country whatsoever; but much more were we called upon to express our sympathies in the present instance; for here the sufferers were an ancient nation of great note and fame, who occupied a most distinguished position in the pages of the world’s history, and who stood on the civil rights that were accorded to them by the Powers of Europe…They had done nothing whatever to promote those terrible outrages, which could only be traced to the jealousy which the Roumanians entertained for a people remarkable for their industry, their truth, and their submission to all the principles of just government in whatever country they might be placed in. The only remedy…was for this country and all civilised nations to raise their voice against such proceedings…Although it was but a small section of the Hebrew people for whom the meeting was now pleading, yet…they were the descendants of an ancient and famous race, whose glories were not surpassed in all the world’s history. They were not behind in any quality that dignified and adorned men and women in any walk of life; and were these people to be put down and treated with scorn and cruelty by a handful of the most contemptible creatures on the face of the earth? We had all a deep interest in the millions…of Jewish people who were making their way in every part of the world. The time might yet come when they would resume their former position among the nations of the earth, and it was to be hoped that the time was not far distant when they would resume…the position of a distinct people and nation - with its proper government, and would vie with all the other peoples and nations of the world in every glory and grandeur.12

Large numbers of English Christians from the Reformation onwards—but particularly from the early 19th century—were attracted to Zionism and campaigned for it long before the vast majority of Jews did. Support could be evangelical or strategic, serving Britain’s imperial, economic and national interests. The British Israelite movement believed the British ‘race’ were descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel—just one of many examples of Euro-colonial powers (see also Holland,13 Germany14 and the US) to appropriate ancient Jewish narratives to express their own sense of national/racial providence and ‘chosenness.’ The malleability of the Jewish figuration was useful to dominant gentile society. Among the circulating negative discourses, ‘our’ Jews or ‘good’ Jews could also be presented as a ‘model minority’—an example of loyal subjects or worthy additions to the nation. As Sutcliffe and Karp note, “Jews have served to exemplify both the primacy of the nation as well as its cosmopolitan transcendence. Perceptions of Jews as particularly culturally cohesive or loyal have offered grist not only for attacks on their particularist exclusivity but also for admiring ruminations on their powerful sense of collective identity and belonging.”15 The rendering of ‘The Jew’ as ‘model minority’ was most effectively used to put down other minority populations. In Victorian Britain this was most often aimed at Catholics.

Leading gentile Zionists of the early 20th century were deeply antisemitic — Churchill, Lloyd George, Balfour, Lord Alfred Milner. The latter, and probably the least known, was a senior colonial administrator and a member of Lloyd George’s war cabinet. He was a calculated supporter of Zionism but deeply suspicious of ‘The Jews’ (at least within Britain, he described Jews in South Africa as “excellent colonists…industrious, law-abiding and thoroughly loyal”). He was also the primary funder of the British Workers League, a war time patriotic labour faction that physically attacked Jews and anti-war socialists. The Balfour Declaration was partly brought about by these long philosemitic Zionist traditions, as well as the lobbying of elite British Zionists (Jew and gentile). It also, however, served British imperial self-interest in the region and was premised on British ruling class assumptions that Jews controlled both Wall Street and Bolshevism at a time when Britain needed US and Russian help in the war.16 Philosemitic Zionism was also popular among the British colonial elite and in the settler colonies. Zionist philosemites in Australia, South Africa and the US tended also to support the White Australia policy, pass laws, and Jim Crow respectively. Whilst antisemitism has always existed in these settler colonial states, most Jews found it easier to gain immediate citizenship and assimilation into whiteness as settlers—sometimes rebelling against, sometimes conforming to these structures.

At a time when antisemitism remained the dominant default, Victorian philosemitism largely took elite and bourgeois forms, involving powerful, influential figures who combined care for ‘Jews’ they either knew personally or had pieced together through stereotypes and projected hopes and values. There were more proletarian/workers movement forms of antisemitism, philosemitism and solidarity developing during this period too. The minority tendency on the left of “anti-antisemitism”—represented by non-Jewish radicals such as William Morris17 and Rudolf Rocker, came from their internationalism (or anti-nationalism), as well as a solidarity built upon living and organising closely with Jewish workers: Jews generally not courted or considered by elite philosemitism. Self-active organising by Jewish workers impacted on these shifting dynamics, though workers movement antisemitism remained the overwhelming tendency. The course and impact of antisemitism’s influence on the European working class (with proud exceptions) must be apprehended as historically observable but not inevitable.

Philosemitism on Top

The seismic shift in discourses around antisemitism and the institutional embrace of philosemitism, came after the horrors of the mid-20th century: World War Two, the Holocaust, the founding of Israel and the colonial dispossession of Palestinians. This reconstitution of majority Euro-American attitudes and official stances away from antisemitism and towards a more overt philosemitism was not immediate. In the late 40s and 1950s, the Shoah was hidden in the rubble of the war’s carnage. Gentile guilt was not visible. The antisemitism long prevalent in fascist and nationalist movements across Euro-America, including those with significant state power, still stalked Jewish lives. Antisemitism was, of course, a dominant current of McCarthyism and other US anti-Communism, including the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Survivors of the genocide were not heard or listened to—many themselves wanted not to be seen. Eventually, in 1961, when the Eichmann trial was broadcast internationally, the testimonies of survivors at the Eichmann trial finally found the world’s ears. The organised, dispassionate mass elimination by Nazism of millions of Jews, Romani, and others began to dawn on the Western world. Jewish life in Europe—its culture, language and memory; its proletariat—had been near- obliterated.

A process was gradually initiated through which official memorialisation of the Shoah was increasingly used by Western states, and by Israel, as a means of self-justification or self-burnishment. Through this memorialisation, white Jews and a particular representation of ‘Jewishness’ are, in Alana Lentin’s words, “hyper-humanised.”18 ‘Jews’ are embraced and back-projected as being part of Western, “Judeo-Christian” civilisational tradition, and are selectively integrated into official and national histories. This expresses a differentiated sense of gentile guilt but has also allowed the Allied powers to present their cause as heroic: part of a history of the victors. The postwar liberal order and the rise of US Empire become defined against the ‘unparalleled’ evil of Auschwitz. The desire that the world-historical violence of white supremacy and racial capitalism, and against particularly categorised people within it, be better known, acknowledged and accounted for is not the same as those who try to minimise the scale of horror and mass destruction of life put into action by the Final Solution.

Those who spend so much time and effort defining and defending why the violence of the Holocaust is so unparalleled, are not defending Jews from harm, they are defending white Europe’s casting of the Shoah as an exceptional moment of aberration. And they are helping to prevent Jews from allying with movements against racism and colonialism. The evil of Nazism has been ripped from the contexts that birthed it: European nationalism, ‘race,’ colonialism. Meanwhile, the moral order constructed around Holocaust memorialisation was led by states who, in those very 1950s, practiced racial apartheid in the American South, used concentration camps and mass executions to cling to colonial rule (Britain in Malaya and Kenya), and consolidated the gains of settler colonial dispossession and expulsion (Israel over Palestinians). As Enzo Traverso writes:

Institutionalised and neutralised, the memory of the Holocaust thus risks becoming the moral sanction for a Western order that perpetuates oppression and injustice.”19

Those who spend so much effort defending why the violence of the Holocaust is so unparalleled, are not defending Jews from harm, they are defending white Europe’s casting of the Shoah as an exceptional moment of aberration.

Overt antisemitism and explicit race science did become more taboo in Western societies. Many European societies passed anti-discrimination laws, giving a measure of legal protection to racialised people while also institutionalising a distorted explanation of where ‘race’ and racism come from. Perceptions (and self-perceptions) of Jews and ‘Jewishness’ inevitably underwent a transformation following this violent rupture. The shift of many Jews, including survivors, from diaspora to nationhood helped to turn the sympathies of a majority of Jews and representative organisations towards Zionism. Up until the Shoah, support for Zionism among Jews, including many conformist diaspora organisations and newspapers, was a distinctly minority view. Many European Jewish workers saw the likes of Theodor Herzl as Bernard Lazare did, the latter writing to him:

You are a bourgeois in thought, a bourgeois in feelings, a bourgeois in ideas, a bourgeois in social mentality. In spite of it, you pretend to lead a people, our people, which is a people of poor men, of proletarians, of the miserable.

Even in times of the greatest distress, such as between 1880 and 1914 when 2-3 million Jews fled pogroms, fewer than 3% went to Palestine. Now, for the first time, Jews joined the world of nation-states and colonies imposed by European racial capitalism. Israel was not destiny, the inevitable outcome of Jewish life or the ‘return’ of a timeless ‘Jewish people.’ This was a tragedy conjured by European colonialism and racism, and a tragedy and injustice for generations of Palestinians made refugees and subjected to unceasing violence and indignity, compounding the tragic results of European antisemitism that helped propel further Jewish settlement and which notionally legitimised and justified the creation of such a racially exclusive state as Israel. This is not to deny the planning of generations of Zionist settlement, nor the agency of Jewish settlers, who are settlers regardless of previous circumstances. Rather, it is to acknowledge that European colonialism, antisemitism, philosemitism, and ultimately the Holocaust, were necessary for the postwar mass settlement of Jews in Palestine ahead of the Nakba, helping to bolster the drive towards a racially exclusive Jewish state and helping to secure the widespread international support from other states who recognised Israel’s founding, including both Cold War superpowers.

The philosemitic, instrumental use of “Jewishness” to define Western morality and of shifting definitions of antisemitism as an ur-evil, emblematic of racism in general, has juddered out of control in recent years. The appropriation of Jews and Jewishness for the management of Euro-American political division has, as we’ve seen, taken many forms historically. But from the post-war period onwards, with increasingly reactionary results, this has been a formulation managed from the top-down, not to “defend Jews” but to defend the nation and the status quo of racial rule by using ‘Jews’ and the ‘fight against antisemitism’ as its legitimation. Here, a supposed ‘love of Jews’ is used primarily to obscure, deny, pick and choose, and hierarchically order different forms of racism—including in how antisemitism and Jews are defined.

This state and reactionary instrumentalisation of Jewishness could not have worked so effectively with other racialised figures, or other forms of racism, which is why particular histories of racialisation are so important. Islamophobia, for example, remains a ‘respectable,’‘ often anti-immigrant, form of racism—the kind which powerful people and institutions overtly perpetuate with impunity. Much like late-19th century antisemitism in Britain, it revolves around issues of failed assimilation, conspiracies of sexual and political violence and perceived threats of national disloyalty. The centrality of Islamophobia to Western politics, particularly in the last thirty years, has helped reshape and converge forms of liberal, right wing and far right politics, and the relationships some Jews have to them.

Traditional forms of far right politics have in recent decades experienced splits over the long-foundational ‘Jewish Question.’ While anti-Jewish racism and Jewish Power conspiracies remain essential to many forms of hard and far right ideology, many organisations and individuals have pivoted to forms of philosemitism. Such philosemitism has almost exclusively focused on an admiration for or envy of Israel’s racial supremacist state and its symbol as a frontline outpost against the ‘threat of Islam.’ Geert Wilders, for instance, said in 2009: “My friends, what we need today is Zionism for the nations of Europe. The Europeans need to follow the example of the Jewish people and reestablish their nation-state.”20 Far right defences of ‘the Jews’ are invariably dripping with racial stereotypes about Jews and are merely a means for the far right to legitimise themselves in the mainstream as “not Nazis”, so as to better attack Muslims or Black people as particular perpetrators of antisemitism: an echo of 19th century philosemitism’s attacks on ‘uncivilised’ cultures abroad and “lesser minorities” at home. The mainstreaming of far right politics has seen the likes of Trump, Farage, Johnson, Viktor Orban, Tommy Robinson and, in different ways, many liberals, successfully courting “official” Jewish sympathies through overt expressions of Zionism and philosemitism, despite also having long track records of overt antisemitism. Many arguments mobilised by Jewish (and many non-Jewish) self-styled leaders of the ‘fight against antisemitism’ are themselves mired in racism. This episode has helped make far right Jews more visible and representative; and for Jews as for other minoritised groups, this question of representation is a knotty one.

“Community” Problems

All racialised populations within the nation have their own different experiences of representation, how the state relates to them and how they are stratified along multiple lines. ‘Court Jews’ were sometimes empowered by gentile rulers to manage ghettos. The Nazis delegated some of the policing of ghettos and forced labour regimes to hated ‘Judenrat’ councils, the leaders of which invariably failed to avoid the same fate as those over whom they ruled. Both forms of delegated rule were rebelled against by subordinated Jews.

People have come to hear more about Jewish communal organisations through the controversy over ‘Labour Antisemitism’ but representation is a problem all racialised people face. Jewish representative organisations, though, happen to have been around longer than any in Britain. The Board of Deputies formed in 1760, the Jewish Chronicle in 1841 and the two have long had an intimate relationship. Such organisations are examples of how dominant class or other fractions within an oppressed or marginalised group put themselves forward as ‘race leaders’ or ‘respectable’ faces to negotiate with power. The history of such organisations is also a history of how the British state itself seeks to manage questions of ‘race’, class, immigration, etc. Struggles against ‘race leaders’ are common and constant, and are mainly to be fought internally to the community in question. Famed Jewish historian Salo Baron wrote of

the misuse of the communal officials as governmental agents was doubly obnoxious in [Prussia in 1750] which combined mercantilist encouragement of ‘useful’ Jewish economic pursuits with severe legal disabilities and sharp curtailment of Jewish population growth. Little wonder that the communal constituencies began losing confidence in their ‘freely’ elected leaders and turning their backs on the entire communal set-up.

Baron was writing in 1942, with possible allusion to the contemporary Nazi use of Jewish leaders to manage ghettos. While he was in the US, his parents and sister in Poland were murdered.

Working class Jews in Britain in the late 19th/early 20th century, as well as in the 1930s, had to forcefully oppose and differentiate themselves from their so-called leaders, whose interests and safety needs diverged significantly from their own. A parallel example would be the Asian Youth Movements of the 1970s and 80s who had to fight both the common sense and the established organisations of the older generation in their own communities in order to bring about a less conciliatory stance towards the state regarding the murderous violence young Asian people were facing in Britain. This sort of internal opposition and distancing is essential. The contradictory interests of ‘race leaders’ and those they claim to represent must be constantly drawn out. The composition of British Jewry, or any other group, is not fixed. Like the technology of ‘race,’ it is subject to constant change. The fluctuating average class position of Jews in Britain has depended on laws, on class struggle, on different migration waves, on different Jews’ relationship to whiteness. Antisemites have claimed that British Jews are all rich, or all vote Tory. This is demonstrably untrue. Yet class composition has changed greatly in the past hundred years. White Jews benefit from whiteness. New migrations, reconfigured racial divisions of labour, and processes of suburban flight have all had their impact. There is clearly an unrepresented amount of discord and diversity (class, ethnic, doctrinal) within a Jewish ‘Community’ often represented by its most reactionary elements. Many Jews are liberals; some are more conflicted in their support for Israel, and some less so (and some, of course, do not support Israel at all). Such softer support, when reflected in the white gentile population, becomes less noteworthy. Part of ‘Labour Antisemitism’ has been to raise long-existent intra-struggles and debates among Jews to the national level—with all the power imbalances, media biases, and gentile ignorance that this entails—and then to supercharge the disparity of who “speaks for Jews.” The activism of young US Jews, and those in Britain, with their new organisations and publications, are needed to force change, both in the oppression Jews face where they live and in the oppressive and reactionary politics that representative figures and organisations are part of.

Philosemitism is partly enabled because enough Jews and ‘community leaders’ share the nationalist and imperialist interests or outlook of the state and wider society and are therefore more than willing to embrace philosemitism’s appropriating ‘love.’ This collaboration buys into and reinforces the role of ‘Jews’ as a ‘protected minority.’ It affirms the lie that antisemitism comes from some external source—from other countries and ‘cultures,’ from racialised outsiders, from ‘alien ideologies’ like the ‘Hard Left.’

Philosemitism is partly enabled because enough 'community leaders' share the nationalist and imperialist interests and outlook of the state and are therefore more than willing to embrace philosemitism’s appropriating 'love.'


Hopefully this look through different iterations of philosemitism provides a measure of context to some of the ways in which Jews and ‘Jewishness’ are used today. The miserable fact is that Jews can be used as playthings, tokens, symbols and shields in this world, regardless. We are constantly made an instrument in memory wars. Our history, oppression and identity; the very memory of our dead, increasingly belong to white gentiles to use for their own ends. If the saccharine state embrace of these representations of harm towards Jews is not about preventing similar forms of violence today, then what is that memorialisation worth? Phyllis Lassner and Lara Trubowitz have argued that:

antisemitism and philosemitism are best understood as expressions of a common, albeit complex tendency to treat Jewishness, wittingly or not, as if it were always and only a representation…when Jewishness is represented - by either antisemites or philosemites - that also inevitably means it can be evoked or employed for ends that are all too easily politically exploited. Indeed, the broadening scope of philosemitic pronouncements and artifacts in our time is of paramount concern… especially as idealized portrayals of Jews and Jewish culture assume problematically ambiguous forms that may be too close for comfort to expressions of antisemitism.21

Our response to the positioning of Jews in today’s politics and discourses can only be to think and to act through principles of antiracism and social justice. These are struggles over class and against racial domination, both within communities and against the state. For Jews, it isn’t enough simply to condemn or distance oneself from the ‘worst Jews’ or stereotypes of them. It is not and has never been a simple case of “sides-based rallying.”22 How non-Jews relate to and understand Jews must profoundly change. I’ve maintained throughout that ‘Labour Antisemitism’ has overwhelmingly been an argument between gentiles and about gentiles. Eliane Glaser has written of English philosemites in the 17th century “not declaring straightforwardly what they think of Jews” but “rather…comparing themselves or others with them… Christians rarely referred to Jews in a neutral, disinterested fashion. More commonly, they either used Judaism as a way of insulting other Christians, or they identified with Jews themselves.”23 Glaser adds that such philosemitism could take the form of an “instrumentality of Jewishness for Christians engaging in particular debates”24 and that “because it could signify either perfection or corruption, Judaism was ideally suited to religious and political controversy, because it could be used both to bolster one’s own arguments, and to destroy those of the opposition.”25 Then, debates centred on Christian doctrine and ritual. Today, questions underlying the ‘debate’ are those of nation, power, racism and antiracism during an age of unending crisis. The positioning of ‘Jews’ and ‘Jewishness’ from then to now have remarkable parallels.

‘Labour antisemitism’ has been a fight within and over the Labour Party. For many, it’s been about the soul of the nation. Almost all involved shared in the false belief, across factions, that Labour had an historical claim to ‘antiracist’ traditions. To many Corbynites this was an ideal built on a shallow knowledge of racism, of Britain’s imbrication in it and the depths of its roots in European workers movements (and indeed a shallow knowledge of the Labour Party itself). Many philosemitic characters who have arisen in recent years have also relied on a periodisation that says Labour was once antiracist. To these people, hilariously, this usually meant New Labour, with its five immigration acts attacking asylum seekers, its oppression of Muslims at home and abroad, etc. After the 2019 election, some of these “antisemitism fighters” celebrated the defeat of Corbynism as the British public’s rejection of racism—a type of moral politics shared by many politicos who selectively praise the wisdom of ‘the electorate’ when it suits them. Here, that meant celebrating the ‘antiracist’ principles of Britain’s voters with a straight face. Emma Picken and Euan Philipps, gentile leaders of ‘Labour Against Anti-Semitism’ wrote a reflection laying out what Labour under its new leader would have to do to make it a “safe space for Jews.” In it they presented Britain’s electorate as an objective weathervane for racism and its rejection, writing:

We stated early on our belief that being seen to be antisemitic would not only be fundamentally wrong in terms of what it meant for Jewish party members and the wider British Jewish community, but also that the broader political, moral and institutional failure would be cataclysmic for the Labour Party’s reputation as a potential party of government. So it proved to be, as the Labour Party fell to its worst general election defeat in 80 years in December 2019…If Starmer and the moderates wish to retain control of the Labour Party after the next general election then they need to win seats, and to do that they must persuade the electorate that Labour has changed.

In the same piece they showed their driving interest, outlining that the Party’s reorganisation would require a ‘zero-tolerance’ disciplinary regime treating all anti-Zionism as antisemitism. “Our observation in LAAS”, they wrote, “is that contemporary antisemitic discourse centres around those claiming only to be ‘antizionist.’” They recommend outlawing support for BDS and cracking down on Labour representatives making public stands in solidarity with Palestinians. They called for the “hard left” to be “driven back into submission” and unsubtly angled for themselves to play roles in the clean-up.

We need movements that upend prevailing ideas about racism - widely seen as individualised, a 'cancer' or 'virus' striking society from outsides, rather than being enmeshed in the origins of a colonial space like Britain.

The state and capital, historically and continually, set the conditions for racism and its most deadly effects. Their police, prisons and borders limit, scar, and prematurely end countless more lives than any hate-filled troll or street fascist. Jews must see our own liberation as being bound to other abolition struggles, not to state power. We all need movements that upend prevailing ideas about racism—widely seen as individualised, a ‘cancer’ or ‘virus’ striking society from outsides and extremes, rather than being enmeshed in the origins of a colonial space like Britain. We need a strengthened autonomous antiracism to build solidarity between different sufferers of racism, to produce subjectivities and actions that are traitorous to whiteness and nationalism. A growing part of that struggle is to better understand and to defuse the power of a top-down philosemitism that presents its attacks on liberatory politics as a protection of Jews.

  1. Jonathan Karp and Adam Sutcliffe. 2011. Philosemitism in History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 2. 

  2. William D Rubinstein and Hilary L Rubinstein. 1999. Philosemitism: Admiration and Support in the English-Speaking World for Jews, 1840-1939. London: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 184. 

  3. Selma Stern. [1950]. 1984. The Court Jew: Contribution to the History of Absolutism in Europe. London: Routledge. 

  4. Giovanni Arrighi. [1994]. 2010. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times. London: Verso. Fernand Braudel. 1992. _ The Wheels of Commerce: Civilisation and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Volume 2_. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

  5. Eliane Glaser. 2007. Judaism without Jews: Philosemitism and Christian Polemic in Early Modern England. London: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 13. 

  6. Sutcliffe. Philosemitism in History. p. 87. 

  7. Glaser. Judaism without Jews. pp. 134-5. 

  8. Patrick Wolfe. 2016. Traces of History: The Elementary Structures of Race. London: Verso. p. 86. 

  9. David Renton. 2021. Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left got wrong and how to learn from it. London: Routledge. p. 16. 

  10. See, for example, Satnam Virdee. 2014. Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. pp. 48-55 and also William J. Fishman. [1975]. 2004. East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914. Nottingham: Five Leaves Press, Steve Cohen. [1984]. 2019. _That’s Funny, You don’t look Antisemitic: An anti-racist Analysis of Left Anti-semitism. London: No Pasaran Media. 

  11. Rubinstein and Rubinstein. Philosemitism. p. 31. 

  12. Rubinstein and Rubinstein. Philosemitism. p. 31. 

  13. “It was in the early Dutch Republic that Hebraic politics most firmly took grip. Analogies between the Dutch Revolt and the liberation of the Jews from their enslavement in Egypt appear ubiquitously in the visual and literary culture of the Dutch Golden Age…Deeply immersed in Protestant biblicism, and politically formed in struggle with the much mightier Catholic Spain, the Dutch readily identified their young nation as a “New Israel,” blessed with divine protection and a special historical destiny. This theological rheto- ric was embraced across the political spectrum”. Karp and Sutcliffe. Philosemitism in History. p. 72. 

  14. “The image of evangelical Germans as the New Israelites, however, remained a powerful cultural idea in Protestant Germany well beyond the old regime.” R. Po-Chia Hsia. 2013. “The Usurious Jew: Economic Structure and Religious Representations in an Anti-Semitic Discourse”. In Edited by R. Po-Chia Hsia and Hartmut Lehmann. In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 161-177. 

  15. Karp and Sutcliffe. Philosemitism in History. p. 16. 

  16. James Renton. 2017. “The British Empire’s Jewish Question and the Post-Ottoman Future” in edited by David J. Wertheim. The Jew as Legitimation Jewish-Gentile Relations Beyond Antisemitism and Philosemitism. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 144. 

  17. See Virdee. Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. p. 49 and the article in Morris’s Commonweal by Frank Kitz, “Blarsted Furriners”, attacking various reactionary socialists, “they seek the support of the propertied classes on one hand by asserting that revolutionary Socialism is due to foreign immigration, and of the worker on the other that his labour is badly remunerated on the same account. Thus two antagonistic forces are used as pawns in a reactionary game, which means the total obliteration of the right of asylum or what is left of it after Most’s imprisonment in 1881. Conspicuous in urging restrictions on foreign labourers, stands Mr. Arnold White, of emigrationist fame, who thinks a Jew-hunt possible in the East End, and is fearful lest, as he told a Government official lately, the patience of certain Irish cockneys should be exhausted and they take the matter into their own hands.” 

  18. Alana Lentin. 2020. Why Race still Matters. Cambridge: Polity. p. 132. 

  19. Enzo Traverso. 2013. The End of Jewish Modernity. London: Pluto Press. pp. 126-7. 

  20. Quoted in David J. Wertheim. 2017. “Geert Wilders and the Nationalist-Populist Turn Toward the Jews in Europe” in edited by David J. Wertheim. The Jew as Legitimation. p. 282. 

  21. Phyllis Lassner and Lara Trubowitz. 2008. Antisemitism and Philosemitism in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries: Representing Jews, Jewishness, and Modern Culture. Newark: University of Delaware Press. p. 8. 

  22. Renton. Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis. p. 5. 

  23. Glaser. Judaism without Jews. p. 28. 

  24. Glaser. Judaism without Jews. p. 29. 

  25. Glaser. Judaism without Jews. p. 131. 


Michael Richmond (@sisyphusa)

Michael Richmond was a co-editor of the Occupied Times and of Base Publication. He has written for publications including OpenDemocracy, New Socialist and Protocols.