The anti-capitalist roots of American anti-Semitism
Religion & Liberty Online

The anti-capitalist roots of American anti-Semitism

Over the past week Americans have been debating the removal of Confederate statues from our public spaces. The discussion was prompted by the white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia that was supposedly in response to the plan to take down the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

But if the rally was about a statue, why were the protestors shouting about Jews?

“Once they started marching, they didn’t talk about Robert E. Lee being a brilliant military tactician,” says Elle Reeve, a journalist who covered the rally. “They chanted about Jews.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, the most common chant at the Friday night rally was “Jews will not replace us.” If taken literally, the chant doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the United States the Jewish community currently comprises only 1.8 percent of the population. And according to the Pew Research Center, Jews are not expected to increase as a share of the population in any region of the world. In North America the Jewish population is even projected to decline both in total number (from 6 million in 2010 to 5.9 million in 2050) and as a share of the region’s population (from 1.8 percent in 2010 to 1.4 percent in 2050).

While the chants of the neo-Nazi protestors reveal their ignorance of demographic trends, there is a another trend that correlates with this rise of anti-Semitism: the increasingly opposition to free market capitalism.

In studying anti-Semitism between the years 500 and 1306, historian Will Durant identified an undercurrent that parallels what we see today: “The main sources [of anti-Semitism] have ever been economic, but religious differences have given edge and cover to economic rivalries.”

Like its Islamist extremist counterpart in the Middle East, the roots of neo-Nazi hatred of Jews in America is often rooted in economic anxiety. It’s no coincidence the term alt-right was coined in 2008 or that a small but perceptible increase in anti-Semitic activism followed the financial crisis known as the “Great Recession.” When people feel they are losing out economically, they tend to look for scapegoats—and the ones they blame are almost always the Jewish people.

But the connection between economic views and anti-Semitism is not unidirectional. As economist Tyler Cowen says, “Hostility toward trade and commerce has often fueled hostility toward Jews, and vice versa.” The left-wing German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof put it even more bluntly: “Antisemitism is really a hatred of capitalism.”

This is not to imply, of course, that all anti-capitalists are anti-Semitic. But anti-Semites are naturally drawn to socialistic and nationalistic economies. As Cowen explains:

Capitalism and the market economy encourage racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance, while supporting a plurality of diverse lifestyles and customs. Heavily regulated or socialist economies, in contrast, tend to breed intolerance and ethnic persecution. Socialism leads to low rates of economic growth, disputes over resource use, and concentrated political power—all conditions which encourage conflict rather than cooperation. Ethnic and religious minorities usually do poorly when political coercion is prevalent. Economic collapses—usually associated with interventionism—worsen the problem by unleashing the destructive psychological forces of envy and resentment, which feed prejudice and persecution.

Cowen also examines how modern anti-Semitism is rooted in statist and socialist thought:

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Germany became the first country to develop systematic anti-Semitic political and intellectual movements. In Germany, Adolf Stocker’s Christian Social Party (1878-1885) combined anti-Semitism with left-wing, reformist legislation. The party attacked laissez-faire economics and the Jews as part of the same liberal plague. Stocker’s movement synthesized medieval anti-Semitism, based in religion, and modern anti-Semitism, based in racism and socialist economics. He once wrote: I see in unrestrained capitalism the evil of our epoch and am naturally also an opponent of modern Judaism on account of my socio-political views.

Not surprisingly, we see the American variety of anti-Semites also blames capitalism. “Look, Marx was kinda right,” said white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. “Bourgeoisie capitalism (and not the Soviet Union) created an undiferentiated, alienated proletarian mass.” Spencer—who coined the term “alt-right”—also explained in a December 2016 speech why those in the alt-right are disconnected from American conservatives who, “talk about global capitalism, and free markets, and the Constitution, and vague Christian values of some sort. But they never ask that question of Who are we? They never ask that question of identity.”

Your garden-variety American neo-Nazi may be more comfortable with the nationalism rather than the socialism in the National Socialist cause. But the “intellectuals” in the movement openly embrace socialist and statist solutions—as long as they benefit “white people.” In fact, their agenda relies on government force to protect the privileges they believe are owed to them based on their “white identity.”

This is the core reason they oppose capitalism. A truly free market system benefits people of all ethnicities, which makes it difficult to benefit people financially simply because their skin is white.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).