Is anti-Semitism really “a hate apart”?
The above is in last Sunday’s Observer, and is part of a genre of articles in which an author tries to establish that anti-Semitism is somehow different from other forms of racism. This is in response to comments made by Jeremy Corbyn in regard to accusations of anti-Semitism within the Labour party, in which he condemned anti-Semitism along with other forms of racism and Islamophobia. He asserts:
To assert that antisemitism is unlike other racisms is not to claim a privilege for it. Hating a Jew is no worse than hating anyone else. But while many a prejudice is set off by particular circumstance – the rise in an immigrant population or a locally perceived threat – antisemitism is, as often as not, unprompted, exists outside time and place and doesn’t even require the presence of Jews to explain it. When Marlowe and Shakespeare responded to an appetite for anti-Jewish feeling in Elizabethan England, there had been no Jews in the country for 300 years. Jewishness, for its enemies, is as much an idea as it is anything else.
This is a common trope in recent explanations of anti-Semitism by those sympathetic to Israel; other forms of prejudice are explainable in terms of social pressures, while anti-Semitism is ‘primal’ and irrational; the idea of rationalising it is often denounced as anti-Semitic. But the suggestion that prejudice against anyone else is understandable while prejudice against Jews isn’t smacks of racism in itself.
Most of today’s minorities have been in Europe only a short time, mostly since the mid-20th century. Jews, Gypsies and, in some places, Muslims have been present a lot longer. When I was at school, terms related to gypsies and travellers were used as insults to mean dirty, unkempt, tramp-like. There was some anti-Semitic bullying and use of “Jew” to mean stingy, and we had a few Jews in that school (though they were not the only victims), but we had no Gypsies or Travellers of any kind. This was long before any of the recent controversies involving Travellers setting up sites without planning permission. So, prejudice against them in their absence is not unique to Jews. And as for the “Christian roots”, Christian churches stopped preaching this stuff after the Holocaust, and the churches in any case lost their congregations hand over fist in the same decades. So if someone’s really on an anti-Semitic rant and he’s under 70, he didn’t pick that up in a school RE lesson.
Another article in this genre appeared in the New Statesman in May this year, titled “The Longest Hatred”. The authors, Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, claim at one point:
Other groups – such as black people and gypsies – may suffer worse discrimination in European societies every day. Nobody, however, thinks that black people or gypsies run the world.
The thing is that claiming that a given minority has too much power is a feature of other forms of prejudice besides anti-Semitism. Claims that Asians are “taking over” whole areas of British cities have been a staple of racist discourse as long as Asians have lived here, with specific (false) claims about Muslims setting up “Shari’ah enclaves” or “no-go areas” having been aired on right-wing TV and in conservative newspapers and journals on many occasions since 9/11. Islamophobes have regularly made accusations about a “Eurabia”, a Europe in hock to its Arab minorities and Arab governments. IN 2005, anti-Muslim blogs made much of a document titled “The Project”, supposedly a plan for the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate Europe. This perpetrator of the 2011 Utoya massacre was influenced by these conspiracy theories.
Returning to Jacobson, he alleges that it is in the debate about Israel and Zionism “that all the ancient superstitions about Jews find a point of confluence”:
We dance around this subject, afraid to confront it full on. But it has to be addressed: partly because all that has been thought about Jews in the past has a home in what we think about Israel now and partly because it is axiomatic to Labour that Zionism is a racist ideology – from which it follows that anti-Zionism cannot be called racist; we will not fix antisemitism, in the Labour party or anywhere else, until we fix Israel. I don’t mean fix its problems, I mean fix the way we talk about it.
It certainly is not “axiomatic to Labour” that Zionism is racist. It is a belief held by some on the left of the party, and rejected by the Blairite wing, who were dominant until recently.
He later gives us a history lesson on Zionism:
Zionism originated as a liberation movement. It grew out of an urgent concern, voiced by 19th-century Jews and gentiles alike, for the safety and wellbeing of Jews, and concluded that only if they had their own country would the deracinated Jews of Europe and elsewhere, including the Middle East, be free from discrimination and persecution. To deny its necessity, whatever its subsequent disappointments and betrayals, is to deny history. Zionism took many forms, but neither conquest nor colonial expansionism was one of them. If anything, Zionism was marked by a dreamy, not to say utopian idealism. Jews would return to the land and work hand in hand with their Arab brethren in an amity that would benefit them both.
The problems is that whatever “dreamy idealism” about Jews and Arabs living together in friendship was present in early Zionism was largely absent by the time the state of Israel was set up, and is certainly so now. There was an unmistakeably colonial attitude; it was seen as imperative that the Jews be given a homeland, but that Europeans were not to pay the price for it despite being their main persecutors; it was easier to force a population of colonial subjects to pay instead. Consider that the British had previously offered the Zionists a chunk of Africa, which they rejected; Arthur Balfour later wrote, “in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country”.
He then claims, as he has in previous articles, that the Holocaust vindicated Zionism:
Not all Jews believed it would work. The world didn’t need another nationalism, internationalists argued. True, Jews had suffered at the hands of everybody else’s and it was bad luck on them if lifeboats were to be declared illegitimate just as it was their turn to jump, but history can be cruel. It got a little crueller later and many a critic of Zionism was forced to eat his words when the death camps emptied.
But the problem with Zionism — that it required the displacement or domination of the people already living in Palestine — did not change when the camps emptied. There is no way of explaining why the Palestinians should suffer to relieve the Jews of other people’s persecution without resorting to racism or to typical colonial rhetoric, such as calling the Palestinians “squatters” despite the Jews having been absent from the land by 1948 longer than most modern nations, including most of the nations of Europe, have occupied theirs.
What distinguishes anti-Semitism nowadays from almost every other type of hate is how mild it is: in the four months since the Brexit referendum in particular, people of every visible minority have faced open hostility, including violence and in at least one case murder, in the street from people telling them it’s “time to go home now” and have become afraid to talk in their own languages. Despite most British Jews also having originated from the same parts of Europe (albeit much earlier), I have not heard of anyone suggesting that they go ‘home’ — probably because they lost their accent decades ago and look and sound like any other white English people. Claims of anti-Semitism generally focus on words, things they claim hurt their feelings, often directed at public figures and often in response to well-jusitifed condemnation of the state of Israel and its oppression of the native people, and to justifications of it by fellow travellers, often Jews, in this country. Ask any Zionist how they would remedy that oppression, and you will generally find that they blame the Palestinians, despite the Israelis having the upper hand. In my experience, Palestinian rights activists are more measured in their use of language than any other group campaigning against injustice that I can think of, and are quick to disassociate themselves from anti-Semites, even if they are Jewish; the racism I’ve read on pro-Israel blogs in English over the years is sickening. They are not so scrupulous about who they take as allies.
Anti-Semitism has become a “third rail”, an issue that can burn anyone who touches it with long-lasting consequences, in a way that other forms of hate that more commonly involve violence have not. Mainstream parties, particularly Labour, have worked to reinforce this situation while not adequately opposing other forms of hate. For example, the Labour MP Naz Shah can be suspended from the Labour party for circulating a meme (before she became an MP) that suggested that Israel be relocated to the USA while there are Israeli politicians who openly debate expelling all the Palestinians and Zionists are commonly heard claiming that Arabs have all the land from Morocco to the Gulf while the Jews ‘only’ claim Israel; meanwhile, an MP who runs a dirty campaign against a Muslim mayoral candidate, trading on suspicion and bigotry against Muslims, loses that election but keeps his seat in Parliament, and his party’s backing when he calls a by-election, and there is every sign that there will not be an alliance against him. He was supported by the right-wing media in that campaign.
People who hype anti-Semitism commonly remind us of the past. There’s a pamphlet which you can download, which someone on Twitter has been telling everyone to read whenever the issue of “left-wing anti-Semitism” is raised, titled “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” (PDF). The problem is that it has gone. It’s past. It’s not now. In the past, Jews were the most visible minority; now (and indeed for the past 50 years), they are not, and visible minorities are visible because of their colour, religious dress or foreign languages or accent. In the past, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza because of threats from neighbouring Arab states; now, it has driven native Palestinians off large sections of that territory to make way for settlements, allows a petty state in parts of it and continues to oppress and kill Palestinians throughout, while the Arab states made peace decades ago. In the past, anti-Semitism was the most violent hatred in Europe; today, it isn’t.
There are good reasons why anti-Semitism should not be treated with especial seriousness compared to other forms of racism that are present today. I am not suggesting that we should tolerate violence against Jews, or people openly peddling baseless claims of widespread Jewish conspiracies such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But neither should we punish those who don’t show the indulgence to a foreign power and contempt for its oppressed subjects that its supporters demand, or who advocate the rights of the Palestinians to first-class citizenship throughout their land. That’s not racism. There is serious and violent racism afoot in this country and if you’re condemning “anti-Semitism” over something somebody said about Israel, you’re not fighting it.
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