In the last year, numerous anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists have appeared at left-leaning venues in New York City. As a monitor of far right politics, I keep track of this sort of thing, and I’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of such events.
But unlike the other bigots energized in the Trump era, these anti-Semites are seeking audiences among the capital-L “Left” — anarchists, Marxists, socialists, and participants in social movements such as Occupy Wall Street. But people inside the Left are increasingly speaking out, and if more continue to, the anti-Semites can be made unwelcome.
The most well-publicized incident was a September 2016 talk by Christopher Bollyn, a former editor at the Holocaust Denial publication Barnes Review, at the Brooklyn Commons. In April 2017, Gilad Atzmon — who says he’s a “proud self-hating Jew,” but that Jews are not quite “ordinary human beings” — spoke at Theater 80 in Manhattan’s East Village.
And in May 2016, the annual Left Forum conference — which draws thousands of participants — included conspiracy theory panels. Amid the Bollyn controversy, it came out that some of the speakers were anti-Semites. Kevin Barrett, for example, doubts the facts of the Holocaust and claims that the U.S. has a “Zionist dollar” because the Federal Reserve is controlled by Jews, while Gearóid Ó Colmáin says that refugees are fleeing to Europe on “‘Rothschild’s slaughterships’, the slave-boats of Zionism’s New World Order.”
Some in the Jewish community assume that the Left — or at least, the radical Left — is virulently anti-Semitic. But that is a misconception. Some of this nebulousness revolves around the definition of anti-Semitism. If it includes calling for an end to Israel’s post-1967 Occupation, than the U.S. Left is certainly guilty. But, putting this aside, most avowed leftists do not identify as anti-Semitic, and generally criticize the wild conspiracy theories about Jews that have become increasingly common.
But even in those Left circles where one can find anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, two things are still off the table: You can’t deny the Holocaust and you can’t denounce all Jews. To get around the latter, a number of authors recycle anti-Semitic ideas but name a subset of Jews — usually “the Zionists” — as the agent of the conspiracy. But there are only about a half-dozen writers that traffic in this game who get any air time. None are household names, and of the numerous Left-wing websites, CounterPunch is the only prominent one to welcome this set.
The good news is that, although this has taken years, these anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists are being marginalized. Hard-line anti-Zionists have taken pains to denounce Atzmon. Jewish Voice for Peace has severed ties with Alison Weir, who uses anti-Semitic imagery and portrays Israel in the manner that anti-Semites have typically portrayed Jewish influence in world affairs. For instance, she singles out Zionists for playing a significant role in pushing the U.S. into World War I.
Both Bollyn’s and Atzmon’s New York City appearances were met with protests. (In both cases, private individuals owned the venues and refused to cancel the events.) And this year, the Left Forum — my former employer — cancelled Barrett’s panels after I and others presented them with documentation of his vile views.
It’s almost always deeply frustrating to convince Leftists to sever these ties — but often it’s achievable. Leftists know these people taint their movement, even though they are often hesitant to be drawn into what seem like endless controversies about anti-Semitism. There is almost always disbelief when you broach the topic, and a tendency to dismiss any documentation that comes from the normal watchdog organizations. And it can also make you the center of unwanted attention; Barrett is running a smear campaign against me in retaliation for exposing him. But Leftists usually change their mind once they understand that these unsavory alliances generate critical media attention.
Leftist Jews often come to me privately and complain about anti-Semitism they’ve experienced, but feel cowed into being silent about it. But the more people speak out against this from within the Left, the less likely the antisemitic conspiracy theorists are to find a welcoming platform.
This weekend at the Left Forum there remains one anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist speaking, Alison Weir. So there is still room for improvement. But Barrett is holding his talks at a secret location outside the conference under the name the “Left Out Forum” on Sunday, June 4. It’s a shame that he will draw an audience at all, but his talk is exactly where it should be: left out of the Left.
Spencer Sunshine is an Associate Fellow at Political Research Associates, and the lead author of the report Up in Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement. Follow him on twitter: @transform6789.