The supposed “anti-semitism crisis” in Britain’s Labour party is revealing an interesting paradox at the heart of modern discussions of anti-semitism.
Undoubtedly there are those who intentionally exploit anti-semitism for political gain. That should be obvious if we pause to consider how much attention leftwing “anti-semitism” (criticism of Israel) – formerly promoted as the “New Anti-Semitism” – is receiving compared to the old-fashioned type of anti-semitism beloved of rightwingers. They wanted Jews out of Britain (the Balfour Declaration, anyone?), denied the Holocaust, desecrated Jewish graves, or refused Jews entry to elite schools and golf clubs.
Because rightwingers now love Israel, even if they often aren’t too keen on real-life Jews as neighbours or members of their organisations, no one seems too exercised about that kind of anti-semitism any longer, even as it rears its ugly head again across the United States and much of Europe. We are all too busy trying to work out when hating Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the settlements is really cover for hating Jews more generally.
But aside from these foolhardy priorities, there is a more insidious and unconscious danger in this obsession with leftwing anti-semitism. It is neatly illustrated by an anti-semitism test unveiled by the comedian David Schneider. On this occasion, he does not appear to be joking. It poses four questions that are supposed to determine whether you are a secret anti-semite and which get progressively more difficult for many leftwingers to answer unambiguously.
Schneider himself notes that many on the left fail the third and fourth questions. And there is a good reason for that: they should do, if they are genuinely progressive.
Once, in a more fundamentalist Christian Europe that emphasised ethnic races, and in which Jews were the main identifiable Other, anti-semitism was rampant and the most significant form of racism. For good reason, the rapid rise of the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust have left most westerners extremely sensitive to the issue of anti-semitism and the dangers of its re-emergence.
But the world has changed markedly since the 1930s. Globalisation means Europe is now rife with many other identifiable groups that racists can turn into an unwelcome “Other”.
Self-interested elites, concerned only with the preservation of their power, have always been keen to cultivate racism. That way, justifiable resentments and anger from the middle and working classes over their economic and social plights can be re-directed towards easily identified targets. Power elites scapegoat weak groups, often through the corporate media, encouraging the wider population to see them as contaminants of a supposed native racial purity, immigrants stealing jobs and “our women”, and those promoting alien practices, religions and cultural ideas that threaten to corrupt or endanger a supposedly traditional way of life.
This is a sophisticated form of divide and rule, designed to deflect our attention from the real struggle against a tiny class of the rich and powerful who control our societies and organise it in ways to entrench their power and further enrich themselves at our expense.
So the struggle against racism must be one that treats all forms of racism as evidence of false consciousness, and regards all racisms as equally dangerous and equally in need of eradication. Anti-racism, if it is to be effective, must be a struggle based on class solidarity – the 99 per cent against the 1 per cent. Anything else plays into the hands of the elites and allows them to perpetuate their pillage of our societies through their enablers in the political and media class.
Schneider’s third question is therefore a problematic one for a true leftist. He asks:
Do you treat antisemitism in exactly the same way as hatred and prejudice against any other group, condemning it outright without any qualifying comment about, for instance, the suffering of other groups?
There is twofold problem here. First, for anyone with their eyes open, anti-semitism clearly isn’t being treated by our elites in the same way as other forms of racism – against Muslims, for instance. It is being prioritised by politicians and the corporate media as a special kind of racism: more significant, more dangerous, more worthy. When would you ever see the full breadth of the British media – from the Daily Mail to the Guardian and BBC – collectively obsessing about a wall mural unless it was being claimed as an example of anti-semitism?
In fact, when there has been very clear evidence of incitement against Muslims, repeatedly in the case of inflammatory cartoons by European publications depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist and worse, western liberals have insisted on the right to offend and scandalise.
In the case of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, where several of its journalists were killed in a revenge attack, world leaders vocally supported the right to be offensive – to be racist even – and ordinary people adopted the French flag as a social media icon in solidarity with that idea.
In other words, the prioritising of anti-semitism as a racism we care about as opposed to other racisms we generally don’t is the very antithesis of class solidarity. What is becoming ever clearer is that anti-semitism is being exploited, as the Labour party “anti-semitism crisis” highlights, precisely to promote divide and rule, to weaken class politics, to subvert a genuinely progressive Labour leadership – the first in living memory.
Which brings us to the second problem with Schneider’s question. If claims of anti-semitism are being prioritised – manipulated even – to divert our attention from class solidarity, then we need to point that out. We precisely must qualify – or more accurately, contextualise – our condemnations, so it is clear that the reason why problems of anti-semitism are being highlighted, and in some cases manipulated or manufactured (see here, for example), is not to protect Jews but to exploit them to advance an elite political agenda.
This is something that many Jews on the left are trying to say, such as those in Jewish Voice for Labour, but they are being ignored by politicians and the media because they are the wrong sort of Jews. Their message does not fit with the one our elites (most of whom are not Jewish) wish to promote to serve their interests – interests that are in truth indifferent to the plight of Jews.
Schneider makes a similar mistake with Question 4:
Did you manage to answer 1-3 without moving the subject onto Israel / Palestine?
But this is possible only if we ignore the fact that allegations of anti-semitism – again obviously in the case of the Labour “crisis” – are increasingly being used as a weapon to silence leftwing criticism of Israel and the promotion of Palestinian rights. Recent official redefinitions of anti-semitism, including one adopted by the British government, explicitly include criticism of Israel as evidence of anti-semitism. Labour’s “anti-semitism crisis” only emerged when a veteran anti-racism campaigner and supporter of the Palestinian cause, Jeremy Corbyn, became leader of the party.
Corbyn reveals in stark fashion the paradox of this modern anti-semitism problem. It is because he treats all forms of racism as equally troubling that he now finds himself in hot water, under attack from the Conservative Party, as well as the Blairites who dominate his parliamentary party, from the narrow spectrum of thought represented by the corporate media, and from the Jewish establishment in Britain – from the Board of Deputies to the Jewish Chronicle – that long ago hitched their Jewish identities to a colonial settler state in the Middle East.
When even commentators in supposedly liberal publications like the Guardian, such as Jonathan Freedland, claim their Jewish identity is intricately bound up in Israel, how are the rest of us supposed to ignore the issues of Israel and Palestine in addressing and challenging what is supposed to now constitute anti-semitism?
Yes, anti-semitism as racism is a problem that needs to be rooted out of our societies. But anti-semitism as a tactic to stifle class solidarity and promote Israel is a weapon designed to benefit only the rich and powerful, and it must be identified as such. The two need to be carefully distinguished – and that job will inevitably fall to the left, one that genuinely cares about all forms of racism.