Can Europe Make It?

Why are we Brits in such a muddle about antisemitism?

We may be at a critical moment in British public life, risking a plunge into an American-style pseudo-politics, sucking attention away from the real inequalities of our world and our society.

Adam Sutcliffe
2 May 2016
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Antony Ashley Cooper, “proto-Zionist Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury”. Wikicommons. Wellcome images. Some rights reserved.What has happened to British politics? In the final week before elections in Scotland, Wales, London and elsewhere, and less than two months from a critical referendum on Europe, the issues relevant to those voting decisions are almost nowhere in sight. Instead, the outrage stirred by a sequence of comments by Ken Livingstone has dominated the media, and, extrapolating from this and from a number of other widely reported incidents, there has been an outpouring of commentary on the supposed ‘antisemitism crisis’ in the Labour party.

It has been quite clearly shown that recent allegations that antisemitism is rife in Labour have been extremely inflated.  Large numbers of Jewish members of the party have affirmed that it continues to be a welcoming place for them under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Antisemitism is certainly not absent from the British left (or from any other major domain of British life), and expressions of it within the Labour party have been handled firmly and swiftly. According to the detailed reports of the Jewish community organisation, Community Security Trust, there were 924 recorded antisemitic incidents in the UK in 2015, including 86 violent assaults and 4 incidents of extreme violence. This is certainly serious. However, evidence suggests that the level of bigotry faced by Muslims in this country, which is much less comprehensively monitored, is considerably more pervasive and menacing. Why, then, has the question of antisemitism attracted so much attention?

Few topics generate as much confusion as antisemitism. What makes antisemitism different from other forms of racism – and what does not? What is the difference between antisemitism on the left and on the right? How does Israel, and Zionism, figure in the issue? How much sensitivity is appropriate to the various stock stereotypes of anti-Jewish prejudice? And what is the significance of the legacy and memory of the Holocaust? All these questions require careful thought, but in the media maelstrom they tend to give rise to a cacophony of jostling assertions and emotions, undermining constructive dialogue and pulling our political discourse toward incoherence.

The first step toward unpicking this muddle needs to be a recognition that the issues at stake are uniquely complicated. Jews are constitutively anomalous in the world:  they aren’t quite a race, or a religion, or an ethnicity. They were the originary minority in the Christian west, and the root tradition of Christianity itself. And then, in the twentieth century, they were the primary victims of the greatest horror in modern European history, still unassimilable to normal historical comprehension. In the aftermath of that they became belatedly linked, whether they wanted it or not, to a nation-state – Israel – that proclaimed itself as the homeland for all Jews; and they remain inescapably associated with the conflict involving that state, and its uniqueness as a long-term global tinder-box.  One of the aspirations of the Zionist movement, when it emerged in the late nineteenth century in response to a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe, was to make Jews ‘normal’, by securing for them their own country, just like those of other peoples. The call for normality is a common refrain still today: Jonathan Freedland, for example, recently exhorted the Left to ‘treat the Jews as you would any other minority’. But Jews aren’t like any other minority – because of their history, both distant and recent, and because of the relationship of that history to the fragile politics of the present, in the Middle East and beyond.

The anomalousness of the Jews is reflected in the anomaly of the word ‘antisemitism’, which itself causes confusion. It’s a strange word, coined at around the same time as the emergence of the modern Zionist movement, by a self-proclaimed Jew-hater, Wilhelm Marr, who saw Jews as alien and dangerous ‘Semites’, insidiously undermining indigenous German civilisation. We’re stuck with the term, though: it is a mistake to avoid it, as Jeremy Corbyn seems to prefer to do, by speaking only of generic racism. It’s preferable, though, to spell the word ‘solid’ – without a hyphen – to make it clear that antisemitism has nothing to do with Marr’s nonsensical and racist notion of ‘Semitism’.

Self-avowed ‘anti-Semites’ in the decades around 1900 loaded their nasty politics with heavy baggage, ascribing great power to Jews – particularly secular, assimilated Jews, who could no longer be readily identified as Jewish – and spinning lurid conspiracy theories around them. Medieval tropes of prejudice, particularly the blood libel, were revived. To all this the Nazis and the Holocaust added a further tier of chilling associations and memories. Contemporary antisemitism is fed from all these historical layers – and the antennae of many Jews are, unsurprisingly, attuned to all these resonances. Understanding antisemitism requires some understanding of this history, and a recognition of its continued significance today.

However, the particular complexity and charge of antisemitism has made it particularly ripe for politicisation. This has become increasingly apparent as the propaganda aspect of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has moved to the fore, with victory in the ‘Facebook War’ more elusive for Israel than military dominance on the ground. Israeli military incursions in Gaza in recent years, for example, have inescapably given rise to images in proximity with antisemitic stereotypes – blood, Jewish power – and, in the heat of conflict particularly, sensitivity to Jewish historical experience, including the Holocaust, has not always been sustained by those whose primary identification is with the Palestinians. Because of the multi-faceted nature of antisemitism, and the particular anxieties it triggers, this accusation can serve to discredit a wide range of criticisms of Israeli actions and policies. There is no equivalent set of taboos and historical sensitivities around Islamophobic discourse.

The controversy over Naz Shah’s social media postings, during the 2014 Gaza incursion, highlights this asymmetry. Her re-posting of a graphic advocating the relocation of Israel to the United States as a ‘solution’ to the conflict was certainly ill-advised. This should be seen, though, in the context of the inflamed emotions and combative social media environment during that summer conflict.  The graphic was a cack-handed attempt to draw a historical analogy with the establishment of Israel in atonement for Europe’s problems, planted in Palestine, which was widely described by both Christian and Jewish Zionists as ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. Her re-posting showed a lack of understanding of Jewish perspectives, of which she has become much more aware since her election to Parliament. Among the many condemnations of her actions in the Commons, the Conservative MP Oliver Dowden stated that, because of their Holocaust resonances, ‘it is completely unacceptable for anyone to use phrases like “transportation” and “solution” when it comes to Israel’.  When seen in the context of Bradford in summer 2014, though, is it not more likely that Shah was using these words simply in relation to the Middle East?

Portrait of Lord Balfour, along with his famous declaration. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Such zealous protection of Jews from potential hurt points to the fact that, alongside the undoubted persistence of antisemitic stereotypes in Britain, there also exists a longstanding strain of philosemitism.  Christian identification with Jews, and with the Zionist cause, has deep roots in this country, from the proto-Zionist seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885), to David Lloyd-George, British Prime Minister at the time of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which first lent official British support to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. There are also deep traditions of admiration for Jews, for their supposed business acumen, group loyalty, familial focus, sobriety and other attributes. Margaret Thatcher was a philosemite in this mould, and a varied mix of sincere identification and admiration may well underpin the convictions of many of the politicians, on both sides of the House, for whom vigilance against antisemitism is a high priority issue.

It seems clear, though, that political struggles are in play here too – as allies of Jeremy Corbyn have pointed out. Wouldn’t it be very surprising, given the bitterness of the conflict between left and right in Labour at the moment, if this were not the case? The reluctance of political pundits to provide this analysis is striking: the media has tended to take allegations of Labour’s ‘antisemitism problem’ at face value. Anti-antisemitism has a particular moral unimpeachability:  analysing its political dimensions can readily appear to be minimising antisemitism, and this can be a short step from being cast as implicitly antisemitic. In usual circumstances, machinations against the party leader would be called out as such quite rapidly. Condemnation of Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone, though, has provided a bullet-proof vest for Corbyn’s critics, enabling them to undermine the party leadership’s pre-election message to an extraordinarily blatant extent.

And what of Ken Livingstone himself? He is in knots over Jews, Zionism and antisemitism also. His casual linkage of Hitler with Zionism was clearly offensive and unacceptable. And he should have known better, particularly given his distinguished record in bringing anti-racism to the fore in the 1980s, and holding London calm and together after the 7/7 attacks in 2005. But there is a context to his outburst, too: persistent, amplified, and at the very least questionable accusations of antisemitism from the right-wing press have dogged him for much of his career, and may have played a determining factor in his loss of the London mayoralty eight years ago. Anger over those episodes has very likely not subsided. Livingstone’s history of the 1930s is selective and distorted: Hitler was in no sense a Zionist, but there was a limited, and, from the Zionist perspective, painful cooperation between the Jewish community in Palestine and the Nazis, based on their common interest, for very different reasons, in getting Jews out of Germany. It’s sad to see Ken slide towards conspiratorial views of the past, and engage in tactless and self-sabotaging baiting of his political enemies. But the pitch and volume of the outcry against him has been emotive and disproportionate. This brouhaha has, for much of the British public, further mystified the complexities of Jewish history and of antisemitism, and increased rather than reduced the allure of seemingly renegade rejections of careful and accurate approaches to the Jewish past.

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“Naz Shah’s swift and sincere apology offers one pathway forward.” Naz Shah with Ken Livingstone on a visit to Bradford, April 2015.Wikicommons/goodadvice.com. Some rights reserved.For those of us who hope for a positive outcome to this episode, Naz Shah’s swift and sincere apology offers one pathway forward. Should this not be embraced and accepted as an excellent example of learning through encounters across difference – in her case, with the local synagogue in Bradford? Hopefully, when Shah is readmitted into the Labour party, this will be the long-term legacy of the rumpus.  Unfortunately, though, not everybody looks forward to reconciliation. In Nick Cohen’s opinion, for example, antisemitism will never meaningfully ebb in Bradford, because, it would seem, of the nature of Islam: ‘A politician who wants to win there cannot afford to be reasonable’. Despite the alertness of our politicians to antisemitism, fatalistic and blanket generalisations about Muslims remain acceptable, even in The Guardian.

We may be at a critical moment in British public life, risking a plunge into an American-style pseudo-politics, in which hurt feelings and wounded identities compete for moral superiority, sucking almost all attention away from the real inequalities of our world and our society. If the Labour party loses sight of the primacy of addressing material inequalities, both internationally and at home, it really will have lost its soul.

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