Celebrity anti-semitism teaches us very little about the reality of prejudice

Galliano, Sheen, Assange: three unrelated episodes of alleged celebrity antisemitism have been transformed into a story of a general resurgence of prejudice. But does the story stand up to careful examination?
Antony Lerman
10 March 2011

The outbursts of alleged antisemitic sentiment by John Galliano, Charlie Sheen and Julian Assange have been roundly condemned. It shows that there is still widespread sensitivity to the public expression of antisemitic and racist views, especially when public figures are involved. And everyone concerned with combating such prejudice should surely find this encouraging.

But as is often the case when a cluster of such attention-grabbing incidents occur, commentators are instantly prompted to tell us what they think these events say about the state of antisemitism today. The instinct to ask the question is reasonable enough, but the tendency to jump so quickly to conclusions might not be. From the following short quotes, there seems to be considerable support for the view that the recent incidents have shown antisemitism to be continuous, enduring, pervasive, newly threatening: they ‘reinforced reports of an alarming increase in antisemitism’ (Andrew McCorkell, Independent), provided evidence that antisemitism is ‘the hatred that refuses to go away’ (Jonathan Freedland, Guardian), indicated that ‘our liberal, creative elite [has] rediscovered an ancient prejudice’ (Julian Kossoff, Daily Telegraph), demonstrated that it was ‘the week that antisemitism became really, properly zeitgeisty again’ (David Baddiel, Daily Telegraph) and confirmed ‘the increasing acceptability of antisemitic abuse so long [as] it is couched within an Israel-Palestine context’ (Norman Lebrecht, Arts Journal blog).

But while it’s possible to understand why these commentators reach such conclusions, a tad more circumspection might have been wise. A brief critique of the quotes shows that there are fundamental flaws in the pieces from which they are taken. Claims of an alarming increase in antisemitism don’t square with information announced in January by the Israeli government’s Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism that antisemitic incidents were down in 2010 from a high in 2009. The statement that antisemitism is ‘the hatred that refuses to go away’ implies that other hatreds have disappeared, but there is no evidence of this. To say that Galliano, Sheen and Assange are representative of ‘our liberal, creative elite’ is absurdly far-fetched. Antisemitism ‘zeitgeisty’?—how can it be the spirit of the time when there was such condemnation of the incidents? And finally, in the three cases under consideration, the abuse was ‘couched’ entirely outside an ‘Israel-Palestine context’.

It’s perhaps not surprising that these writers display such weaknesses. None of them are experts in the subject. Not that experts have all the answers or that they would all agree. But it’s surely not unreasonable to expect that editors seeking informed comment should search for scholars and researchers who, while able to communicate their views effectively and succinctly, have at least got serious credentials. Isn’t there something absurd, even paradoxical, about seeking the wisdom of celebrity writers commenting on the verbal inanities of celebrities?

Prejudice of all forms latches on to people, and through this process is constantly being renewed from generation to generation. While no amount of education or living together will ever eradicate it completely, the recent past has seen very great improvements. But such efforts must be supplemented by continuous research that examines, for each particular case of prejudice, what exactly it is, what motivates it, how it is being lived and transformed now, in this context. This careful examination of the particular is the only way we can hope to combat and confront prejudice in all its many changing manifestations.

This is certainly the case with antisemitism, which has been around in some form or other so long, unfortunately, that our ability to understand or combat its current manifestations will only be enhanced if we refrain from trying to come up with instant, all-encompassing explanations, but rather take a more reflective approach. (Linda Grant did this rather effectively in her assessment that for Galliano ‘antisemitism is only another taboo . . . by invoking the name of Hitler and gloating about the gas chambers, he is only doing what others have always paid him to do: shock.’)

Antisemitism is a hot issue which demands cool and rational differentiated analysis. Making broad judgements about it in a climate of justified high indignation is probably unwise. Such a climate tends to develop when incidents occur that involve celebrities, government ministers, prominent businessmen and leading clergy. They rapidly become public controversies in which it’s soon difficult to separate out the incident from the response. Reactions and interpretations very quickly colour how we see the offending event, obscuring both its singularity and the social, cultural and political context in which it occurs.

It may be tempting to lump together consecutively-occurring incidents, but the connections between them may be more complex than at first appears. This seems to me to be the case with the events in question.

The insult may be compounded by three alleged expressions of anti-Jewish hostility emerging within days of each other, but it’s very dodgy to build a theory about the salience of current antisemitism on an incident in a Paris bar that may never have come to light, a television interview with an actor already notorious for volatile and abusive behaviour and a report of a conversation between two people to which no one else was a party and which the ‘guilty’ individual disputes.

One common feature is highly significant, however, and that’s the role of modern media. It’s inconceivable that that these events would have impinged so rapidly on public consciousness 20 years ago, which raises the question: Just because we can see more of everything and comment on it so much more quickly, does that mean antisemitism has ‘increased’ or rather that we’re made aware so much faster of the antisemitism that already exists?

Adopting a differentiated approach effectively means rejecting a theory of antisemitism, most fully realised in the work of Professor Robert Wistrich, that feeds much current comment: that antisemitism is a unique, continuous phenomenon, stretching back two millennia, that defies parallels and comparisons. Other leading historians of antisemitism, such as Professor David Feldman, who heads the new Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism  at Birkbeck University of London, Professor Tony Kushner  at Southampton and Dr Adam Sutcliffe  at Kings College London, have developed a body of work that sets antisemitism within a wider context of Jewish-non-Jewish relations and does not see attitudes to Jews exclusively through the prism of prejudice.

In my view this is crucial in illuminating what is happening today because it helps understand the coexistence of outbursts of antisemitic sentiment and intensely pro-Jewish attitudes, sometimes in the same person. The tendency of so much instant comment is to look one-dimensionally at anti-Jewish prejudice and ignore the wider context of countervailing forces, the degree to which Jews have played a part in shaping their relations with the wider society, general ignorance about Jews, the revival of Jewish life in countries where antisemitism has been rife and the strong commitment to combating antisemitism that exists among governments and senior politicians in democratic societies. All this calls into question whether we should attribute much significance to these celebrity outbursts.

None of this means that antisemitism is of no consequence today or that it does not represent a serious danger. Rather, it suggests that what tends to grab attention may not tell us very much about deeper trends and that our assumptions about antisemitism’s recent history are incorrect.

For example, in the writings of those who are most alarmist about current antisemitism, it is often baldly stated that antisemitism went away after the war because of revulsion at the Holocaust and has now come back with a vengeance. There was a post-war hope that the cultural objects of prejudice could be relatively easily eradicated by liberalism. This has not happened. The instinct, which intensified in the late 1960s, to move in that direction through human rights and anti-racial discrimination conventions and charters has had a very positive impact. The key innovation of this period has been to aim to eradicate prejudice on the grounds that it is a human right to be different and to preserve that difference.

For years, especially since the view that antisemitism had suddenly returned emerged so strongly post-9/11, I and other experienced researchers have been pointing out (http://www.axt.org.uk/essays/Lerman.htm) that the failure of the most naive post-war hopes imply that antisemitism never went away. Therefore whatever intensification has occurred builds on a pretty substantial base. In which case, we are not confronting such unprecedented phenomena as some like to claim.

Condemning hardcore antisemitic discourse and cartoons is the easy bit. More relevant to deeper understanding might be a relatively prosaic factor—because it’s seen perhaps as an old story—like the significance of the advance of far right, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic parties in Europe. Support for the BNP and the English Defence League show Britain is not immune, a fact further confirmed by the results of the recent Searchlight opinion poll which showed that almost half the country would vote for far-Right parties if they gave up violence.

Very little attention is given to the consequences of large scale migration from countries where education against prejudice, racism and antisemitism is inadequate and in some cases non-existent. (This is not an argument against a liberal immigration policy, with which I am in favour, but a call to develop special educational measures to deal with a specific problem - much as the human rights approach to prejudice has tried to do.) And while there is a hue and cry in some circles at the nasty expressions of antisemitism which tips up online in responses to blogposts on newspaper websites, violent language is common in such fora across the internet. What needs to be considered is whether this lends respectability to antisemitism and creates converts or whether it simply gives the existing cohorts of antisemites an opportunity to verbalise their hate anonymously in a form not available to them before. Unpleasant as it is, it may allow people to vent  hatred and so may actually limit destructive power.

Discussion should focus on the many other troubling manifestations of antisemitism and on the conceptual problems faced by analysts in determining what is and what is not antisemitic. (I’ve deliberately steered clear of the entire and highly controversial antisemitism-Israel-Palestine nexus, which is central to any assessment of antisemitism today. As far as I can see it played no part in the Galliano or Sheen cases, and while it may have figured in Assange’s thinking, his main apparent animus against some Jews emerged in a rather traditional form.) Paying too much attention to Galliano et al. is surely misplaced and is highly unlikely to reveal anything profound.

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