Navigating 21st Century Antisemitism

Q: Which is preferable—the antisemite or the philosemite?

A: The antisemite—at least he isn’t lying.

- Jewish Joke

Figure 1. Likud campaign billboard that reads 'Netanyahu: in a different league'

Figure 1. Likud campaign billboard that reads 'Netanyahu: in a different league'

On April 10th, 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected for an unprecedented fifth term as Prime Minister of Israel.

Despite being embroiled in scandal since 2017, his nationalist and xenophobic ticket clawed its way to victory by a tiny margin. Some of his policies include the official annexation of Israeli-settled parts of Palestinian territories and an even more aggressive defence military.

The re-election of the Likud Party is a blow for global human rights. It will mean another four years of structural and physical violence in the region, as well as the entrenchment of segregation and tensions along ethnic divides.

The policies and actions of Israel’s government deserve to be intentionally condemned. I do not want to be misinterpreted. Even so, in the UK, over-zealous critique of Israel and its actions has the potential to slip into antisemitism (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Andrew Slack (former Labour Councilor for Chesterfield) shares public post.

Figure 2. Andrew Slack (former Labour Councilor for Chesterfield) shares public post.

I am a Jew and the radical left is my ideological home. Sometimes I couldn’t feel less welcome.

There seems to be a persistent blind-spot in the left’s ability to self-critique antisemitism. Take left-wing publication, the Canary:

“.. jumping on the media bandwagon and obsessively focusing on Labour antisemitism … the same media machine that relentlessly whips up hysteria and energises negative narratives about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.”

While current UK politics is experiencing fundamental upheaval, these narratives are not new. The subtext of the above quote is that the ‘media machine’ and those involved in it are making noise about antisemitism to deliberately undermine Corbyn.

The accusation that Jews are used by, or in cahoots with, news media is virtually a meme in the Jewish community. The conspiracy goes that we desire corrupt, right-wing politicians in power to ultimately retain that power (read: money) for ourselves. We will falsify and exaggerate claims of antisemitism in the the Jewish-controlled media to this end.

This is not exactly the line of 21st-centry leftists. Instead, they suggest that Jewish people’s experiences are co-opted by right-wing media to push an anti-left agenda. The irony of this is inescapable. From the perspective of Jews, it is the leftists that are using our experiences to promote their own political agenda. Ultimately our voices are minimised even when they are headline news.

Dismissing complaints of antisemitism as a smear against Jeremy Corbyn does not promote his ‘new kind of politics.’ It falls into the trappings of an old kind of antisemitism that must be left behind.

***

I visited Israel on a birth-right trip. When I informed my close and wider social circle of my plans, I often chose to qualify with something like:

“Absolute mugs, giving me a free holiday when I don’t even think Israel should exist!”

This was partly self-protective, many people around me would have taken the desire to explore my heritage as a mark against me. They firmly believe that Israel is an apartheid, neo-colonial puppet state to guarantee the propagation of U.S. interests in the middle east.

But the thing is, I do think Israel should exist. More accurately, I don’t see campaigning for its abolition as helpful. Personally, I would like to see a left-wing government elected to power that grounds policy in equal representation, community integration and violence reduction in the region. This a deeply complex and manifold issue, and it is beyond the scope of this piece to address it in its entirety.

Figure 3. Агитатор (‘Agitator’, Soviet magazine) no. 12, June 1971.

Figure 3. Агитатор (‘Agitator’, Soviet magazine) no. 12, June 1971.

There are nuances of Israeli culture that are rarely acknowledged this side of the Mediterranean. Our birth-right tour guide, Nadya, grew up in Russia. After surviving the second world war, her family suffered state-sponsored antisemitism in the autocratic USSR. Under Stalin, Jews in leadership positions were executed. After his death, we were considered friends of the west and cultural traitors, subsequently barred from universities, government participation and oppressed (alongside other religious groups) with aggressive state-atheism.

From Nadya’s perspective, making Aliyah (migrating to Israel) was a way to escape the violence and trauma her family had experienced for generations in Russia. Her patriotism, and the patriotism that runs through Israeli society, is not a power-hungry plot, nor is it the interests of the West infiltrating the middle east – it is pride of identity that springs from hardship. Ignoring this history in critique is a facet of antisemitism.

Support of Israelis does not equal support of the actions of the state of Israel. Many of us are heart-broken that the only government that represents us is committing the exact human rights violations large segments of its population escaped.


***

I have had personal contact with two types of antisemitism in my lifetime. The first is outlined above, the second I found when I briefly lived in the United States.

“You’re British and you’re Jewish? So you’re my dream woman?”

“Israel is such an amazing place. I’m not Jewish but I went on Taglit (birth-right) with my sorority. Loved it!”

The way mainstream conservative Americans frame their discussions of Jewishness is highly problematic. I often found they would assume that, because I am Jewish, I would also ignore Palestinian oppression, worship Netanyahu and be socio-politically conservative (I took particular joy in countering these). Hearing white, wealthy Americans clumsily argue the case for Israel in the same breath as denouncing the rights of POC in their own country was quite disturbing.

Philosemitism in the U.S. is rooted in neoliberal, nationalist ideology. The Second World War established the U.S. as the wealthiest and most powerful nation state. They also received many European Jewish refugees. These Jews were folded into the narrative that justifies American sovereignty. Our success was used to evidence the ‘American Dream’ narrative that promotes individualistic self-interest and produces stagnant inequality. The story went: the left-leaning politics of Europe failed the Jews, and it was the free markets of the U.S. that made our survival prosperous.

Despite consistently favouring Democratic candidates, the stereotype of socio-politically conservative, money-hoarding, hard-working Jew perpetuates. My identity is fetishized by mainstream conservatives to promote a pro-Netanyahu agenda, remain ignorant of POC struggle and justify conservative fiscal decision making.

***

I do not wish to make false equivalences. The situation of Jewish people, while partly analogous with oppression experienced by POC, is unique.

Most Jews have white privilege, the ethics around the state of Israel has no equivalent and Jews are, on average, the wealthiest religious minority. This is why I personally take issue with calling antisemitism a form of racism. By the same token, being white and wealthy has never protected us from the violence of white supremacists.

Figure 4 Memorials to the 11 victims of the mass shooting of the Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburg on November 4, 2018.

Figure 4 Memorials to the 11 victims of the mass shooting of the Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburg on November 4, 2018.

The most extreme and enduring form of antisemitism is fascism. Its current sect – the ‘alt-right’ – are Islamophobic at their bottom line, and over the last decade they have remembered that they hate Jews, too.

This has culminated in the steady and horrifying rise of hate-crimes against minority communities.

Past violence towards us has left palpable fear. During the long shadow cast by WWII, my grandparents picked a British-sounding surname from the phonebook. Despite publishing this piece under a pseudonym, my father tried to push me away from putting my head above the parapet. After the horrors of Pittsburg and Poway, some Jews feel that my grandparents were right: we should hide our heritage and fully assimilate to avoid persecution.

I see intersectional feminism as an alternative route. At its core, intersectionality fosters the celebration of difference towards a greater understanding of oppression. Jews like me must speak up about our lived experiences instead of retreating inward. Leftist circles must, in turn, critique internal biases. Half of the battle is understanding. Learning where to spot antisemitic tropes in the discourse and making a stand against them when you do, even when they come from high-quality left platforms, would help us create anti-antisemitic spaces.

We must match the violence of fascism with unity and activism. When we fail to address problematic narratives in our own discourse, we limit our strength as movement against xenophobia and the alt-right.


Article by Olivia Cohen