Anti-Semitism in context

A group of people standing outside a government building in London holding British and Israeli flags with placards reading "Zero tolerance for Antisemitism" and "Labour: for the many not the Jew".
A demonstration in London against anti-Semitism in the Labour party.

There was a piece by Gordon Brown, the former chancellor of the Exchequer and prime minister, in the Guardian last Saturday demanding a “more radical” approach to the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. His suggestion was that there should be automatic expulsion in any case where there is “irrefutable evidence of antisemitism or any kind of racism”, that appeals should be heard by a body “independent of the Labour party’s hierarchy, with members chosen for their standing and integrity among the public – and after consultation with the Jewish and other communities” and that a future Labour government should appoint a dedicated minister, “backed up by an ambassador”, to “combat antisemitism – by monitoring and reporting on its evil presence and pressurising governments everywhere to eradicate it”. The piece was unusual in that, in places, it put anti-Semitism in the context of other forms of racism, but the solution was really not all that radical, precisely because it detaches anti-Semitism from racism in general and treats it as a hate apart, deserving of special condemnation or energy in fighting it, while all other forms of racism are lumped together.

There has been a resistance to see anti-Semitism as one form of racism among many; it is sometimes called the “oldest hatred”, dating back to the dawn of Christianity, a claim often repeated but rarely subjected to scrutiny. It is no coincidence that Jews are western and central Europe’s oldest minority; mediaeval Europe did not tolerate the presence of Muslims or indeed Christians of mildly differing beliefs for very long, while Jews were allowed to live here, albeit in separate communities, while Gypsies were persecuted anywhere they lived. There is a hypothesis that anti-Semitism is primal and regardless of the rationale, never rational, while other prejudices are often the product of circumstance (e.g. a new inflow of workers seen as “taking jobs”). That the prejudice morphed in the 19th century from Jews being vilified as “Christ-killers” or just not Christian to being viewed as economic saboteurs or conspirators in various things proves this hypothesis, to many people: it’s part of Europe’s DNA. Christopher Hitchens once observed that, while other minorities are despised as inferiors, anti-Semites often seem to admire Jews as being clever. This is not unique, however; some conservative Islamophobes profess admiration for Muslims in some regards. Mark Steyn has been heard praising Muslims for having strong families and family values. This cohesion is what he believes makes Muslims a threat, especially to a Europe he sees as losing its sense of itself.

Sometimes this doctrine veers into an open declaration that other minorities deserve the prejudice they suffer while Jews do not. Melanie Phillips, on Saturday Politics in May 2018, declared that there was never any excuse for anti-Semitism, which was not like other forms of racism but is “a unique derangement which is based entirely on lies and demonisation”; Islamophobia, meanwhile, was a means of “shutting down legitimate criticism of the Muslim community”. Many dismiss Phillips as an unrepresentative crank, but she gets an awful lot of access to the mainstream media. Much as with terrorism, there is a demand for unconditional condemnation without any equivalence made to anything else; anything less is denounced as equivocation, “whataboutery” and proof of guilt. It is obvious to many of us that other prejudices are not taken anything like as seriously, even within the Labour party, let alone in regard to the Tory party in which serial, open racist Boris Johnson is still the front-runner for the leadership; Sarah Champion in 2017 wrote the below for an article in The Sun and, although relieved of a shadow cabinet position (not immediately but after public protest), remains a Labour MP:

BRITAIN has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls.

There. I said it. Does that make me a racist? Or am I just prepared to call out this horrifying problem for what it is?

For too long we have ignored the race of these abusers and, worse, tried to cover it up.

No more. These people are predators and the common denominator is their ethnic heritage.

In recent days I have seen much discussion on Twitter as to whether Jews are white or not. There is a doctrine that Jews should be excluded from this category and in Israel, the majority of Jews are of Middle Eastern origin (Sephardim and Mizrahim) and some are Black, from Ethiopia. But that is Israel and this is the UK, where the vast majority are of eastern European origin and, apart from the minority of strictly religious Jews who live in a few small areas such as Stanford Hill in north London, look like any other white people. Both the definition of whiteness and its importance in a minority being accepted by the majority changes over time; when Irish and Italian people first arrived in the USA, for example, they were not regarded as white, and were impoverished. Irish people were discriminated against both in employment and housing until well after the Second World War, with houses and flats to rent being advertised with the rider “no Irish, no Blacks, no dogs”. That has since changed, as it has with the Jews who mostly arrived in the UK in the early 20th century mostly from what is now Poland, fleeing persecution under the Russian Tsars. From the late 1940s onwards, the ‘face’ of immigration was a black or brown one; to this day, those immigrants and their descendants are still associated with their countries of origin while British Jews are called just that.

British Jews are accepted in a way non-white minorities are not. I have never heard of British Jews being subjected to disproportionate stops and searches by police, for example. I have not heard of British Jews being shot dead or choked to death by the police. This is what “white privilege” means in a society like ours: that you look like you belong to the majority, that you do not look foreign, you are not seen as a threat just for being in a public place and your place in this country is accepted: you are not told to “go home”. Media coverage of Jewish issues amplifies the voices of ‘mainstream’ representatives and often vilifies dissenters (or censors them, as we saw with a letter to the Guardian that was published this week and then removed from the website after a complaint from the Board of Deputies), while trusted and mainstream Muslim voices are dismissed as unrepresentative or politically biased (usually as Islamist sympathisers) and fringe voices, often hostile to the majority, amplified. When Jews try to police the boundaries of their community by pointing out that many anti-Zionist Jewish figures are really not all that Jewish, they are believed; when Muslims do the same, they may be accused of using the “True Scotsman fallacy” at best or of calling for someone’s murder at worst.

It does not matter if Jews were not regarded as white, or white enough, in the distant past in Europe. What matters is where they stand, and where the majority stands in regards to them, now. In Europe, cultural or religious sameness has been important to be accepted in society in the long run; in Britain and the USA now, white skin is the most important factor followed by native dress and speech. Anyone who proclaims, as I have seen on Twitter in the last few weeks, that there is “no such thing as a white Jew” is being wilfully blind to obvious facts. A dark-skinned person spouting the nonsense Melanie Phillips does would not get anything like as much media coverage, and a dark-skinned minority would have to fight to get racism they were experiencing recognised by a whole swath of the media. Look at the university racism scandal reported on the front page of the Guardian last Saturday; this is something that has been bubbling on social media for years and only just got into a mainstream publication, yet the Guardian and other mainstream publications have covered the “Labour anti-Semitism crisis” in huge detail with regular front-page stories and sanctimonious opinion pieces, like Gordon Brown’s, since it began.

So, let’s not pretend that the past is still with us, the past where the Jews were a persecuted minority and suffered outright discrimination and worse. The past doesn’t “go anywhere”, to use the title of a popular pamphlet on this topic, but it is still past; it is not still here. It is not anti-Semitic to claim that this is no longer the case; it is fact. It is not anti-Semitic to say that a white Jew who can walk down the street and not fear the police is no less white for being a Jew, much as is the case with white Muslims (and Black Muslims both here and in the USA never let us forget it). While it is not true that all Jews are rich or that they control capitalism or the media, it is true that they are not a community associated with poverty nowadays and it is true that they are better represented in the mainstream media and get a more favourable treatment from it than most visible minorities. It is not ‘radical’ to foster hypervigilance to what may (or in fact may not) be mild expressions of prejudice towards a minority which is relatively privileged nowadays, while glossing over very overt hostility, even hatred, towards other minorities. It’s not radical to use a superficial “anti-racist” stance to shore up an oppressive regime perceived as a western ally. No, “anti-Semitism versus Islamophobia” is not and should not be an either-or, but as long as people openly display the latter while denying it exists, while reminding us of the “oldest hatred”, any warning about anti-Semitism which pointedly omits mention of other racism must be answered with “what about?”, because history proves that all racism can have the same result, i.e. violence.

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