Thursday, 10 May 2018


Berlin: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Since my visit to Berlin in March, the subject of antisemitism has been on my mind, not least because the Labour Party's woes in this regard have been figuring so prominently in the news. I've also been watching Simon Schama's thought-provoking Story of the Jews on BBC TV. This is difficult territory, not least for a Baptist-heritage goy like me. Frankly, and despite – yes! – some of my best friends being Jewish, I have very little idea of what it means to occupy one of the wide range of identities included within the definition of "a Jew". I am sufficiently naive in this regard – "ignorant" may be the better choice of word – that I have generally been unaware that any particular person might be Jewish unless they chose to tell me as much. Whether such ignorance counts as lack of prejudice is an interesting question. The witty title of Steve Cohen's booklet from 1984, That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic, is apposite, I think.

I grew up in the artificially white, working-class environment of Stevenage New Town, where the Jewish community was, to the best of my knowledge, very small. Indeed, I think I'm right in saying that there was no synagogue in the town until 2009, and that even now it is not a permanent building, more of a community organisation. Which is strange, when you consider that the bulk of the initial population was made up of Londoners displaced by the bombing of the East End in World War II, where the Jewish community was large. I don't think the situation in other New Towns like Harlow or Crawley was much different, either; no doubt there's a thesis there for someone ("Antisemitism, self-exclusion, or self-improvement? The missing Jews of London's New Towns"). Certainly, the names in our classroom roll-calls were relentlessly Anglo and Irish, and the number of children excused morning assembly on religious grounds – it was a compulsorily full-on Christian occasion in those days, with bible-readings, prayers, and hymn-singing – was negligible.

Consequently, amongst us children, such antisemitism as there was existed pretty much as an "empty signifier". Lacking any obvious representatives to lend it substance, "Jewishness" was reduced to some unpleasant expressions around meanness ("Oi, don't jew those sweets") which, on the racism spectrum, were on the same mildly thoughtless level as the use of, say, "wog" to mean "steal" ("Who's wogged my pencil?"). The word was just playground patois, and might as well have been spelled "joo", though it was doubtless derived from real anti-Jewish sentiment in families back in East London, and hurtful and confusing to any Jewish children who did happen to be around. However, it is also the case that these were expressions never used at home, if your parents were as liberal-minded as mine. I was roundly told off if I brought them into the house, and instructed never to repeat them. But ditto "ruddy" (does anyone say that any more?), "bloody", "shit", and the rest; in a respectable household you maintained two parallel languages, home and away.

The home environment was clearly the key. The lad who for a few years was my closest friend at secondary school was, I later realised, a racist, and a well-versed one, too. As well as the tune, he knew all the words to the racist song, so to speak, and it was, I'm ashamed to say, fun for a while to sing along. After all, few things are as enjoyable as an intense friendship in early adolescence, especially if you have previously been a bit of a loner, as I had, and friendships create their own inward-looking parameters. It's no excuse, but in the absence of any actual black people's feelings to be hurt, it seemed harmless enough to improvise entertaining wickedness together on the endless set of formulaic racist tropes my friend was able to supply. It was only later, when I was more aware of the dark places I had been exploring so thoughtlessly, that it occurred to me to wonder where on earth he had been getting this stuff from. In those pre-internet days, race-hate material was as difficult to come across as pornography. The suspicion had to be that, whereas my parents had steered me severely away from any hint of prejudice, his had not only encouraged it, but must have educated him quite thoroughly in its ways. Bigots are not born, I'm sure, but made.

To return more specifically to antisemitism, it is obviously a more complex syndrome than racism, pure and simple. No-one, as far as I know, has ever accused Jamaicans or even the Japanese of anything as baroque as being self-indicted Christ-killers, of murdering children in sacrificial rites, of running the secret financial backing of a centuries-long conspiracy aimed at global domination, or any of the rest of the persistent, prefabricated nonsense that informs systematic antisemitism. Having watched Simon Schama's TV series, it's hard to know which is the more interesting and urgent question: why Jews, quite specifically, have attracted such unwelcome attention, or why this virulent persecution across time and space has had such perennial appeal to so many varieties of non-Jew. Again and again, since ancient times, Jews have been expelled from some temporary home, then invited to form a community within someone else's borders, have flourished for a century or two to mutual benefit – despite exclusion as less than top-drawer citizens – only to find themselves persecuted and ejected yet again when their host's mood and politics changed. As someone points out in one of Schama's programmes, it's not paranoia when people really are out to get you, and the impulse behind Zionism is easier to grasp and sympathise with when this world-historical cycle of enforced uprootings is laid before you as the case for the defence.

And therein, it would seem, lies Labour's problem, and also the intractable problem facing the Jewish community. That is, the existence and real-world behaviour of an actual Israel, an embattled Zionist nation which, having tasted serial military victory over its neighbours, took a reactionary lurch in the direction of the religious right, morphing in the process from eternal supplicant to sand-kicking regional bully, a far cry from the secular socialist idealism of its early years. Or, if we look at it another way, the Left's long romance with the plight of the oppressed and dispossessed Palestinian people has had unforeseen real-world consequences, not least some awkward alliances with uncompromisingly radical Islamic groups who wish to see Israel wiped from the map. On the Left, it is conventional, and convenient, to distinguish carefully between being pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, and – perish the thought! – anti-Jew. And yet, infuriating as it can be when even the BBC covers the fraught issue of "antisemitism in the Labour Party" without ever mentioning members' principled opposition to illegal Israeli land-grab "settlements" or their support for the self-evident justice of the Palestinian cause, it's hard to know what sort of real-world political position Left anti-Zionism really represents today, now that Israel has been a political and geographical fact for 60 years. Which makes it so much easier for various Jewish groups to elide any anti-Israeli sentiment or talk of a powerful "Zionist lobby" into accusations of simple antisemitism.

It is equally infuriating that Labour now has a leadership that appears hamstrung by its own heritage of oppositional idealism – dare one say its shibboleths? – and which is consequently forced to shoot itself repeatedly in the foot, for fear of pointing the weapon at its dubious friends and allies elsewhere. I can't imagine Jeremy Corbyn really is an antisemite (although that title, That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic, does pop into my mind again), but he appears not to see that he seems to have an awful lot in common with some people who clearly are, and unless he does something positive about this, the entire Labour Party – the Labour Party, FFS! – can and will be tarred with that brush until, oh, let's say, he is forced out of office, there is another Militant-style purge of the party membership, and the Blairites regain control of "their" party. Which some might see as a Zionist-inspired conspiracy scenario (uh oh...) but is surely just a demonstration of precisely the sort of cynical opportunism that real politicians must engage in if they want to win, rather than merely signal their virtue to the like-minded.

Does Jeremy Corbyn want to win? I'm not so sure that he does. To show automatic solidarity with the oppressed – the famous opción preferencial por los pobres of Latin-American Liberation Theology – becomes a guiding reflex after a while, a way of making sense of the world, as well as a confirmation of one's own sense of secular moral justification. To be in power in the West is, by that definition, to be one of the Bad Guys. To be in opposition is, similarly, to be on the side of the angels. It's a reflex that can blind one to appearances, however,  (a.k.a. "the optics"), and makes it impossible to engage with the sort of dirty Realpolitik that forges strategic partnerships with unpleasant but useful oppressors. So, does an unbreakable habit of opposition to Israeli policies and their supporters in the West make Corbyn look sympathetic to real antisemites? Does this bring his party into conflict with some powerful currents of influence? Might this lose them the next election, and might this outcome suit the purposes of certain ambitious people within his own party very well? Quite possibly, I imagine him concluding, but so be it: principles are at stake!

But, as Winston Churchill is reputed to have said when Stalin joined "The Allies" in 1941, following the Nazi invasion of the USSR, thus changing the course and outcome of WW2,  "If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons". Corbyn, I suspect, could never bring himself to do that. Which makes him a good man, but an awful politician.

Jewish section of Southampton Old Cemetery


Anonymous said...

Ah, a foray into mined territory. The standpoint that criticising the Israeli government is antisemitism is something that you encounter here quite frequently. On one hand, I think it's a classic example for a rhetorical strawman. On the other, I firmly believe that a people can be traumatised just the same as an individual. For this reason, and since I am a member of the Tätervolk, I see the Israeli/Arab/Palestine conflict as a huge tragedy, initially caused by us Germans.

Leaving politics aside, it's the everyday antisemitism which enrages me. You know, you're guest at a party, enjoying a conversation with a guy you consider as reasonable and simpatico - and then you hear "Did you know that there weren't any jews killed on 9/11" or "For sure, Donald Rumsfeld is a jew". This is so disgusting, and I'm not able to keep my opinions about this bottled up.

Re Corbyn: I believe a lot of social democrats here envy Labour for him, especially since Martin Schulz caused the SPD to crash and burn on the last federal state elections. Now, with Andrea Nahles and Heiko Maas, polls are turning out even worse for the SPD. If they drop below the right-wing AfD on the next federal elections, this could mean game over for the SPD after 150 years.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


No, no, I insist... the origins of Israel/Palestine and the rest of it are *our* fault! Sykes-Picot, Balfour Declaration, the Protectorate... The conditions for a world-historical fuck-up were solidly in place long before Nazism. I'm sure we meant well...

But yes, real antisemitism is creepy and mystifying. I'm glad to say I have only rarely encountered it, unlike everyday racism, but even that seems to be on the decline (my pet theory is "football" -- the kind of person who might be inclined to racism is also the sort to worship some team which is these days probably made up of 80% non-white players...).


amolitor said...

It is perhaps worth noting that the pre-Christian jewish people kept a pretty detailed record of their history, which we know as The Old Testament. And my goodness, they were a difficult people. It may be that they were no more terrible than everyone else at that time, but they were certainly an awful bunch. Astonishingly, they wrote a great deal of it down and carefully preserved that record which the other semites in the area apparently were careful NOT to.

How this translates into modern attitudes to the modern jew I do not pretend to really understand. I will hazard a guess that these facts may be relevant. That a) jews tend to be good at things, as they as a culture value education and work b) people tend to hate people who are good at things and c) there is a conveniently available historical record of a people, also called jews but possibly not really related, who were turds.

That is at any rate the thumbnail sketch that I use to prop up my wobbly understanding of modern anti-semitism.

Mike C. said...


In the interests of balance, and at the risk of making unsupportable and racist generalisations, I should point out that Jews are also famously quite bad at things (sport comes to mind) and that the Old Testament may well have been intended in the spirit of the equally famous Jewish self-deprecating humour, but has lost its edge of hilarity over the centuries. Job, for one, always makes me laugh, anyway.