This politicisation of anti-Semitism is opportunistic and a betrayal of its true victims

Posted on May 11, 2016

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Anti-Semitism

The employers of a young pharmacist discover that her surname, Reiner, is not German but Jewish, and a few days later she is fired without explanation. A 19-year-old American soldier is captured with his platoon on the Western front, and, as he is single out by a German officer, a fellow POW remarks, “this guy sure knows how to deal with the Kikes.” A schoolgirl is carried away screaming as she accuses another girl of “murdering Jesus”, leaving her young Jewish classmate in tears. In each of these cases the victims, while going about their lives, were met with and impeded by prejudice and discrimination. In two of the cases it took an explicit form, and in the other subtler instance it had severe and unambiguous consequences. Anti-Semitism of this kind is a clear denial of what should be universal rights – those of being treated with equality and dignity regardless of ethnicity, race, or faith – and thus comparable to any other form of ethno-racial discrimination.

If only the same could be said of current debates about anti-Semitism, where not even the terms of the debate are the subject of consensus. In the recent controversy concerning alleged anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, definitional confusion has opened up fertile ground for opportunistic political attacks that have little or nothing to do with the actual question of anti-Semitism itself. This cynical politicisation of a serious issue should concern anyone who genuinely cares about historic and current-day prejudice against Jewish people, and about sustaining a positive dialogue between the UK’s different ethnic and religious communities.

Ethno-racial and conspiratorial anti-Semitism

The incidents above all occurred in the 1940s and 1950s and were repeated to me throughout my childhood, because they happened to members of my family (my grandmother, grandfather and mother respectively). Growing up in the UK at the end of the twentieth century, and as an adult in the twenty-first, I am pleased to say I have never had to deal with this kind of anti-Semitism. The closest I have encountered are gentle and overwhelmingly positive cultural stereotypes expressed in friendly ways, many of which I happily identify with. (While some may object to stereotyping in any form, I am loath to disown the venerable Jewish traditions of bookishness, self-deprecating humour and a penchant for bagels and lox. So shoot me!)

Now, I am not religious and, although it is a source of identity for me, I wear my Jewishness extremely lightly and in a way that is not immediately visible to others. My experience will be different to those who outwardly display theirs in their dress and daily activities. These people will, no doubt, sometimes encounter stares in the street and be subject to preconceptions – often negative ones – that cannot help but weigh to some extent on their sense of self. As with the vignettes mentioned above, and the experiences of other visible and religious minorities who are regularly othered in a majority white and predominantly secular society, this kind of anti-Semitism that has a clear and unambiguous equivalence to other kinds of racism.

However, there is another kind of anti-Semitism, which is both considerably more complex and also more uniquely targeted at Jews. This form is whispered and typically occurs in the absence, rather than the presence, of its targets. On the few occasions I have encountered it directly it has come from strangers who did not know about my background and who, for some strange reason, felt comfortable confiding in me about the people they believed were not in the room. The central characteristic of this form of anti-Semitism is to take diverse phenomena and to join them together with “Jews” or “Zionists” as a connecting thread. It acts as a place-filler for the black box of how global power and influence operate, thus allowing effortless leaps from “Zionist organisations” to 9/11, the financial crash or the rise of ISIS. Although you would not know it from following the British media this week, such forms of anti-Semitism are today present on the fringes of the Western left and right. They are also considerably more prevalent in the parts of the Muslim world – an unjustifiable product of justified anger at Israel – and in the former Soviet Bloc – the sinister legacy of the historical, though now largely decimated Jewish presence in the region.

To be clear, anti-Semitism as ethno-racial discrimination and anti-Semitism as conspiracy theory are fused together in terms of their object – ie. Jews (however clearly this object is defined). They are sometimes (though not always) also fused in the minds of the perpetrators, when the latter neglect to distinguish between individual Jews they may encounter and those they that they believe lurk in the shadows of global power. However, the two forms are both conceptually and operationally distinct. It is a failure to acknowledge this distinction that is at the heart of recent controversies, whether due to genuine confusion or deliberate conflation.

Confusion and conflation

Anti-Semitism in its ethno-racial form is, to my mind (though I am happy to be corrected by anyone who can actually offer serious evidence), is relatively rare in modern-day Britain. Jews do not face systemic discrimination in the labour market or public life and are not often the target of racist smear campaigns in the mainstream media (though see below). Indeed in the same week that the media has united in lending credence to the flimsy claim of endemic anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, the Sunday Mail ran a very real attack, clearly sanctioned at the very top of the Conservative Party, linking Labour’s Muslim candidate for London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, with terrorism. The fact that Jews are typically not subject to this kind of institutionalised racism should not be a cause for complacency. There has been a worrying rise of hate crimes against Jews (as well as Muslims), in the UK in the last couple of years and the deadly terrorist attacks on Jewish communities in Brussels and Paris show that concerns about security are all too real. However, you would have trouble finding anyone in any position of influence taking such incidents lightly, while public opinion also seems unanimous in its disgust. Any politician who publicly condemns anti-Semitism in its ethno-racial form is largely preaching to the converted.

Once again though, the waters are muddied by the conspiratorial form of anti-Semitism. This is also the pursuit of a negligible minority in Britain. However, a larger pool of social media users, whether knowingly or not, reproduce some of its core tropes. This includes the casual and rarely defined use of the term “Zionist” and superficial deployment of (what they presumably believe to be argument-clinching) factoids about Jewish and Israeli history, such as Ken Livingstone’s recent, confused evocation of the Haavera agreement. These views can be seen as sailing close to, and on occasion crossing the border into conspiratorial anti-Semitism. This is despite the fact that most who express such views, including Ken Livingstone, would confidently and sincerely condemn anti-Semitism in its ethno-racial form. Comments from Ken Livingstone as well as Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence on grouping anti-Semitism with other forms of racism, suggests that neither understands the distinction between ethno-racial and conspiratorial anti-Semitism, or the need to address the latter as an independent problem.

It is legitimate to be concerned about this problem and there is a very clear step Corbyn can take to assuage those concerns. This would be to acknowledge, condemn and more actively police conspiratorial anti-Semitism within the party. This may involve providing a clear definition of “Zionism”, and guidelines for how the Party should treat use of the term by members. The term should not confuse its broadest definition – of anyone who believes in the right of the State of Israel to exist, even while insisting on radical changes to its borders, institutions and policies (which includes myself and, I presume, the vast majority of the British left) – with the apologists for settlement expansion, segregating walls and periodic murderous assaults on Gaza. Such actions would not only allay fears, but also provide a far more solid basis for legitimate criticism of Israel. It would also help to build a more systemic, as opposed to conspiratorial, understanding of the way the pro-Israel lobby operates. Seeing this network of groups as using, to great effect, the same formal and informal channels of influence as any other lobby can strip away a lot of the mystery that feeds conspiratorial anti-Semitism.

While some in the Labour Party have proved unable to distinguish between ethno-racial and conspiratorial anti-Semitism, their attackers have by contrast been guilty of conflating them, while often also throwing entirely legitimate criticism of Israel into the mix for good measure. Careless and often uninformed criticism of Israel has been condemned by some as straightforward ethno-racial “Jew-hate”, only superficially different from past forms of European anti-Semitism. Britain’s Chief Rabbi, meanwhile, rejects any distinction between Jews and Israel – much to the consternation of many on whose behalf he claims to speak – thus implicitly reasoning that criticism of Israel in and of itself amounts to prejudice against Jews. Meanwhile, others have run with the dubious identarian argument that only the persecuted are capable of identifying what does and does not constitute prejudice. In all of these cases there is a refusal to acknowledge the distinction between ethno-racial and conspiratorial forms of anti-Semitism, not to mention criticism of Israel.

Selective indignation

While these different views may be sincerely held (and I don’t doubt that they are), there have been clear efforts to causally link this simplified notion of anti-Semitism with the current Labour leadership. A wide range of voices has joined in chorus in recent weeks to argue that anti-Semitism has become endemic in the membership and that this, somehow, flows causally from the top of the party. In the aftermath of Livingstone’s outburst it was claimed that the Party was embroiled in an escalating “race war” and infected by an “insidious virus” of anti-Semitism. The Prime Minister himself, in typically opportunistic style, accused Corbyn of being a “friend of Hamas”. A month earlier, the Jewish Chronicle had claimed that under his stewardship the Labour Party now “attracts antisemites like flies to a cesspit”. Meanwhile, back in August, during the Labour leadership campaign, the Telegraph published a front-page story labelling Corbyn an “anti-Semite”. (As this was based on the misquoting of the Labour Minister in question, the paper was subsequently reprimanded by press regulator IPSO).

Now it is of course plausible that there has been a proportionate increase in conspiratorial anti-Semitic views in the Labour Party since the massive growth in party membership last summer. However, the paltry evidence provided by the accusers suggests otherwise. In fact it is more likely that, if at all, there has merely been an absolute increase in line with the growth rate. (If the Tory Party ever managed a membership surge the absolute number of uninformed and unhinged members would also certainly grow.) Either way the leadership has arguably been insufficiently pro-active in challenging attitudes that flirt with conspiratorial anti-Semitism. An inquiry is looking into the issue and if this is found to be the case this should be addressed unequivocally. On the other side of the argument, however, something has been happening that to my mind is far more disturbing. This is the strategic deployment of the accusation of anti-Semitism as a political weapon, used as cover for the pursuit of narrow partisan objectives. That is to say: not a crime of inaction, but a calculated assault.

So how do we know that these attacks on Corbyn are cynical and not merely misguided? Firstly because of its timing. Those driving the current accusations are a diverse group whose interests have temporarily converged around a single shared objective – the downfall of the Labour leadership. The Conservatives and the right-wing media clearly plan to achieve this by attacking Corbyn on grounds of national security (a strategy that also accounts for the recent smears against Sadiq Khan). The Labour right and left-liberal media, meanwhile, have relentlessly hammered away at the “unelectability thesis”, frequently revealing this to be at least as much an aspiration as objective analysis, as well as running with weakly evidenced claims of misogyny and anti-Semitism on the left of the Party. Finally, pro-Israel voices, aware that a Labour election victory would result in the first major government in recent history that was openly and unapologetically opposed to Israeli militarism, has, since his election, attempted to brand Corbyn himself as anti-Semitic (with very little success, it should be said).

The fact that each of these groups has enthusiastically jumped on the current bandwagon is hardly a surprise – they already had their culprit and were merely in need of a crime. Livingstone may have excelled in his role as the useful idiot, but the collective desire to beat Corbyn with this particular stick has long been there. It can only be assumed that many, if not all, of these actors have been actively looking for evidence to confirm the theory. A pertinent question, therefore, is why the attack occurred a week before Corbyn’s first major electoral test. Can it really be a coincidence that MP Naz Shah’s social media posts from two years ago – which sparked the row in the first place – suddenly surfaced at this time? (That is a genuine question, which I have not yet seen answered).

The second and perhaps more telling sign that these attacks are deeply opportunistic is their sheer hypocrisy. For five years the right-wing press and Tory communications machine tore into former Labour leader Ed Miliband in ways that quite conceivably could have been interpreted as anti-Semitism of the base, ethno-racial variety. Miliband was branded as “weird”, a “North London geek”, somehow not quite cricket enough to appeal to the honest burghers of Middle England. Such an interpretation is hard to pin down, of course. With Jews, unlike more visible minorities, signalling may operate above even the pitch of the dog whistle, generating a sense of discomfort that not even the discomforted necessarily associate with ethnicity. Nonetheless, if those who are now so concerned about anti-Semitism had wanted to they certainly could have built a plausible case. Instead: silence.

Then in 2013 The Daily Mail viciously defamed Miliband’s deceased father in an attack that was closer to textbook conspiratorial anti-Semitism than any of the comments attributed to Shah or Livingstone. This attack, however, evoked not the image of the capitalist or Zionist Jew, but instead the unpatriotic-Marxist-intellectual Jew, and thus was politically inconvenient for those now intent on politicising anti-Semitism. In the media storm that followed, the word was barely mentioned, and when it was, was quickly dismissed without complaint. That those who launched and cheered on those attacks are some of the very same people who now wring their hands about Labour’s anti-Semitism problem speaks volumes about what really motivates them.

Offensive

There are two key lessons to draw from all of this. Firstly, the question of the relationship between Israel, Zionism and the Jewish diaspora is a complex issue that requires continual dialogue. Those, like myself, who are indignant at the treatment of the Palestinians are, of course, right to criticise and campaign against the actions of the Israeli government. However, there is no excuse for this criticism drifting towards conspiratorial anti-Semitism, where “Israel” and “Zionism”, let alone “Jews”, cease to be clearly defined terms and instead become vague receptacles for generalisations and unsubstantiated claims. (Indeed, many defenders of Israel conspire with this when they refuse to acknowledge the difference between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism). On the other side, while taking instant offence can be a natural reaction to poorly chosen words, it also serves to close doors that desperately need to remain open. This is particularly the case for an issue like conspiratorial anti-Semitism, which thrives on an absence of accurate information. No-one, apart from Corbyn’s most deluded attackers, believes there is a problem of ethno-racial anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Although signs of conspiratorial anti-Semitism are concerning, the Party is perfectly capable of dealing with these and strengthening members’  understanding of the issues will be central to this.

The second lesson is far less complex and, in my view, far more concerning. That is large parts of the Conservative Party, the Labour right, and the mainstream media will, without pause for thought, deliberately politicise anti-Semitism for petty political gain, or at least uncritically acquiesce in this. They do this by blowing accusations out of all proportion, conflating different forms of anti-Semitism (sometimes along with basic criticism of Israel), and linking these causally with Corbyn’s leadership. If this becomes the norm, we will see tenuous accusations resurface every time an election looms or an opportunity arises to score points against the Labour leadership. There should be no doubt that the past statements, social media posts and casual encounters of anyone who can be linked to Corbyn are now being trawled through and stored, to be released with sound and fury whenever they can do maximum damage. This vicious proxy war does nothing but harm to the cause of tackling genuine anti-Semitism and improving relations between British Jews, Muslims and other groups. For anyone who really cares about the past and present suffering of Jewish people, and for anyone who wants to see our level of political debate raised and not further debased, that should be offensive.

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Posted in: Politics, UK