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The fear of being a "bad Jew": a response to David Graeber

Will left anti-racists defend the "bad Jew"? Fear comes also from the fear that some might not.

Keith Kahn-Harris
10 September 2019
Jeremy Corbyn and Shami Chakrabarti answers questions on Labour's anti-Semitism inquiry findings, June 30, 2016.
Jeremy Corbyn and Shami Chakrabarti answer questions on Labour's anti-Semitism inquiry findings, 30 June 2016.
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Jonathan Brady/PA. All rights reserved.

What struck me most in David Graeber’s recent article for openDemocracy was the evident sincerity of his fear: the visceral nature of his foreboding that the overwhelming focus on – in Graeber’s view overblown and weaponised – accusations of antisemitism in the Labour Party is not only leading to the existential threat of right-wing antisemitism being downplayed, it is itself stoking antisemitism from those resentful at the cynicism of the allegations. (I do want to say that despite his claim, on tweeting his article, that ‘Jewish people are not allowed to say certain things in the UK’, many of the arguments that Graeber makes are actually very widely made and contested in the online debate.)

Taking the fear that different kinds of Jews feel seriously might be a starting point in resolving this horrible dispute. Surely a recognition of the fact that Jews with very different views on Corbyn may have felt the same sense of creeping anxiety in recent years might be a place from which dialogue could begin? That would, of course, be naïve. One thing we know about the insecurities of modern existence is that however much they may be widely felt – among Jews and everyone else – they generate radically different conclusions as to what the ‘real’ source of those insecurities are, and the prescriptions for addressing them.

Still, I do feel the urgency of pointing out to Graeber that the fears and resentments he describes so eloquently are in form, if not in content, very similar to those of other Jews who see Corbyn’s Labour Party as an existential threat.

Graeber argues that Jews are being used by non-Jewish political forces for reasons that have little to do with antisemitism. The antisemitism issue in the Labour Party is being wielded by those on the right of the Party as a way of pushing back on the necessary democratisation of Labour. As he appeals: "My safety is not your political chess piece."

As I’ve discussed extensively elsewhere, Jews are indeed being used. The problem though is this process goes much wider and much deeper than Graeber acknowledges. Further, he neglects the way in which Jews across the spectrum have allowed this to happen – including Jews like himself.

But before I explain why I think that, I first of all want to suggest that we take cynicism out of consideration in explaining why things have gone so badly wrong in the Labour Party. Without detailed knowledge of what is going on inside people’s heads, proving sincerity or cynicism is almost impossible. Certainly the bitterness and passion with which non-Jewish political actors on all sides of the Labour Party argue about antisemitism does not suggest coolly controlled manipulation. Accusing people of cynicism is, most of the time at least, an evidence-free way of avoiding engaging with the fact that human beings can have genuinely different opinions on a certain subject.

It’s certainly true that Labour centrists have positioned the antisemitism issue as central to their dispute with the direction of the Party. It doesn’t follow though, that this means they have simply concocted the issue. Nor does it mean that seeing antisemitism on the left as a significant problem necessarily and unavoidably means agreeing with an entire centrist ideological package. As I will argue later, there are many of us who are certainly not Labour centrists and who see the antisemitism issue as far from confected.

Still, you can of course be used as a ‘political chess piece’ by those who are entirely sincere. And that is where I would encourage David Graeber to look at the bigger picture. In fact, he can look to his own Twitter feed. One commenter, @DannyShell4 (who doesn’t appear to be Jewish and has a cartoon by Carlos Latuff as his icon; the Brazilian who came second in the ‘Iranian International Holocaust Cartoon Competition), tweeted the piece to Wes Streeting and Jon Mann saying that it was "a message…you should both read!". When Jews defend Corbyn and Labour against antisemitism accusations this is what inevitably happens – the Jew who validates one’s own opinions on antisemitism is the Jew one needs to listen to; the one who doesn't is the one you point at with a wagging finger.

I suspect that Jews on both sides of this divide – and there are hints of this in Graeber's own piece – fret about being treated as "bad Jews". The pro-Corbyn Jews are bad because not sufficiently Zionist; the anti-Corbyn Jews are bad because not sufficiently anti-imperialist. This division of the world into good and bad Jews is now ubiquitous. It may at times happen through sincere belief and motivations, but it is nonetheless a form of instrumentalization. It encourages a fundamentally lazy approach to anti-racism in which only those Jews whose views are convenient can be listened to on antisemitism.

It hurts. And yet somehow we cannot seem to get out of this trap. So often in the Labour Party, Jews are turned against Jews. We offer ourselves up to be selected, to be validated. We are desperate to be the good Jews, the right Jews. We end up by stoking what I have called ‘selective anti/semitism’ – a strange combination of love for some Jews and rejection of the rest.

Although back in 2014 I published a book that made the argument for conflict resolution between different kinds of Jews, by now I recognise that the situation has deteriorated to the point where the divisions are too deep to be easily addressed. What I haven’t given up hope on though, is the development of a form of anti-racism, and a Jewish engagement with it, that will challenge the division of the Jews into the good and bad variety.

What this kind of anti-racism needs above all is the courage to embrace inconvenience. In his article, Graeber argues that, should the rise of contemporary heirs to Nazi antisemitism mean that they come for "Jewish left intellectuals", then "Corbyn and his supporters will be the first to place their bodies on the line to defend me." Of course they will! It will be absolutely within their comfort zone to do so. That doesn’t mean opposing Nazis is worthless, it’s just that Nazis are not and have never been the sum total of antisemitism.

But what happens when different kinds of antisemites come for different sorts of Jews? What happens if they come for Jewish hedge fund managers, Jewish supporters of settlements in the Occupied Territories and Jewish property developers? What happens if the antisemites are part of minorities that themselves experience racism? I don’t for a second think that Corbyn or most on the Labour left would do anything other than condemn attacks on Jews as they happen. But what would they do beyond that? Would he be marching outside the Iranian embassy? Would he visit the home of the trophy wife of a Jewish billionaire tax-dodger gunned down on the street?

For what it’s worth, I do agree with David Graeber to the extent that, amidst all the controversy about antisemitism on the UK left, we are in danger of underestimating the threat from the antisemitic right. Certainly, I view with great trepidation the Soros-fuelled fantasising of significant sections of the pro-Brexit right, and their evident admiration for their Orbanite European ilk. I am also horrified by Netanyahu’s support for these forces. I would remind Graeber though that while mainstream Jewish organisations may have arguably not been vocal enough against these trends, they are not supportive of them either. Jewish support for Trump and the far right is confined to tiny groupuscules over here (unlike in the US).

In any case though, a reading of history reminds us that antisemitism is too polymorphous a phenomenon to be confined to one part of the political spectrum. Graeber may be correct that ‘there is no conceivable scenario in which admirers of the ideas of Rosa Luxemberg or Leon Trotsky are going to start shooting up synagogues’ (although they may well explain it away if the right kind of Islamists do so). But we should not forget the Doctor’s Plot, the antisemitic campaigns in Poland in 1968 and the suspicions about the Jewish embrace of capitalism found in some Marxist theorising.

The easy anti-racism is the sort that allows you fantasies of having been at Cable Street. Harder anti-racism requires grasping the fact that minorities aren’t always who you want them to be and that you don’t get to choose the ones you have to defend. Moreover, to live with diversity is to give licence to minorities to believe the ‘wrong’ things and behave in the ‘wrong’ ways.

Graeber worries about the backlash that Jews will suffer from playing along with overblown accusations of antisemitism. He may be right. It’s certainly the case that people with little prior interest in Jews have drifted into antisemitism as a response to their belief that Jews may be undermining the longed-for Corbyn revolution. But while Graeber's worry may be justified, what is the alternative? A retreat into quietism? A constant fretting about not being the Jew that behaves badly? If we want a truly diverse society where Jews and others can feel they truly belong, we must fight for the right to be "badly" behaved. Anti-racism must become the uncompromising defence of even those one would prefer to be very different.

So really there is no shortcut. If you want to stop Jews being used, you will have to do so across the board. If you don’t want to be treated as a bad Jew whose views don’t count, then you need to start working towards a future in which there are no good or bad Jews.

The place to start is in the cracks. One of the distressing things about the article is that it bifurcates the Labour dispute into two sides – right/centrist v left. Yet there is much more diversity than it appears on the surface. Groups like Socialists Against Antisemitism (with whom I myself am loosely aligned) demonstrate that it’s possible to be on the left of the Party while still feeling that there is a major antisemitism problem to be addressed. I know of non-Zionists in the Jewish Labour Movement. I know of Momentum activists who see antisemitism in the Party as an existential problem. Perhaps those of us who are inconvenient to pigeon-hole are the source of a way out of this crisis. Not that we are the good Jews! But we do demonstrate at least that there are multiple ways of being a bad Jew.

This, then, is what I wish for David Graeber: the courage to be truly inconvenient; the courage to become a Jew who can face their fear for the future by refusing to be what any set of non-Jews want Jews to be.

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