The left must restore the ties between antisemitism and other racism

Good thoughtful commentary on the need to recognize the linkages between antisemitism and other forms of racism and discrimination:

Jewish new year is a time for reflection, and the subject of Labour and antisemitism inevitably featured on the list of things to think about this year. Indeed, it was hard to avoid, for on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Labour MP Chuka Umunna proclaimed his party to be “institutionally racist” over antisemitism. Folded into this row is a painful aspect of the story: that elements of the left, for whom fighting racism is a deeply held principle, might overlook, underplay or even reproduce this ancient race-hate against Jewish people.

The issue has coalesced around the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his supporters. But in truth, it is nothing new. Published in the early 1980s, Jewish socialist Steve Cohen’s book That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic, still resonates today. He wrote: “It is intolerable that the socialist movement has never been prepared to look at its antisemitism in a self-critical way.”

Leftwing antisemitism can arise from common misconceptions, such as coding all Jewish people (including those, like me, from an Arab-Jewish background) as white – in both political and status terms. Racism as an imagined white superiority over people of colour underpins current discrimination and appalling historical injustices such as colonialism and slavery, which continue to cause terrible harm today. By contrast, a core antisemitic trope is the Jewish conspiracy of a shadowy all-powerful group controlling the world, or at least the media – based on an imagined superior status of Jews. Perceptions of Jewish people as “white” can also mask their persecution as a racialised minority. Jews were long hated as the “other”, the Orientals of Europe, in language of a type deployed to demonise Arab and Muslim populations today.

Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has driven a wedge between battles against racism and antisemitism. The Oxford philosopher Brian Klug locates the genesis of this divide in a 1975 UN general assembly resolution asserting that Zionism, alongside colonialism and foreign occupation “is a form of racism and racial discrimination”. This, Klug argues, “erased the origins of Zionism in the Jewish historical experience of exclusion, expulsion and racial discrimination”. Eventually dropped, the resolution, he says, had a lasting effect on the left – diminishing the idea that, as well as being experienced as colonial racial discrimination by Palestinians, Zionism was also a national movement born of oppression and trauma. Cohen sums up this duality by describing Zionism as both racist and anti-racist – the latter because it was an answer to the murderous anti-Jewish racism of Europe.

For the left, this division deepened in 2001, when a world conference against racism in Durban, South Africa issued a statement that Zionism equals racism. Again Jewish nationalism arising from a need to escape race hate was defined solely and purely as a perpetrator of race hate. It’s not surprising that criticism of Israel grew more urgent and damning during this period. It was marked by the breakdown of the Oslo peace process and Palestinian uprising in 2000, Israel’s military reoccupation of the West Bank and building of a separation wall, its siege of Gaza and subsequent deadly assaults on the strip in 2008 and 2014, as well as war with Lebanon in 2006, demolitions of Palestinian homes and expansion of illegal Jewish settlements. But around this time, mention of Jewish self-determination came to be met with suspicion. It was seen as an attempt to quash the historical facts of the devastation and dispossession caused by Israel’s creation for Palestinians, or as deflection from Israel’s military aggression, or a way of engineering equivalence between two sides in a starkly asymmetric conflict.

More recently, divisions are compounded by political invocations of “Judeo-Christian values”. Commonly but by no means exclusively used by the far right as a way of excluding Islam, this Judeo-Christian tradition is a surprise to those who recall that the deadly depictions of Jewish people as responsible for killing Christ or drinking the blood of babies came out of Christian Europe. Or that Jews and Muslims enjoyed the centuries-long creative coexistence of a Golden Age in Spain – until Christian armies rolled up and expelled both communities in 1492. Or that Jews living in Arab and Muslim lands did not suffer the regular pogroms and persecutions inflicted upon their co-religionists in Christian Europe during the same period. If there is a historic sharing of values, it is a Muslim-Jewish one – although this currently has no perceived use politically. But the promotion of this mythical Judeo-Christian love-in has reinforced a perception of where Jewish people fit geopolitically: with the imperialist, crusading west and not among the persecuted and suppressed.

All of which feeds the blind spot we see now amid the left. It can appear obliquely, in suggestions that Jewish people have been granted unique protections from discrimination, or in the denial of material consequences to antisemitism so that, unlike other racism, it is only about offensive words. This misses the fact that language is frightening precisely because it is integral to the architecture of antisemitism, which can and has culminated in violence, exclusion and ultimately genocide. Race- or faith-based prejudice is ever-present across society, which is why such animosities can be so readily roused by ideologues.

A new alliance of black, Asian, Muslim and Jewish people, of which I am a member, advocates a different approach, asking that organisations not only tackle antisemitism but also link it to work on tackling other racism. It’s vital that the left reconnects these divided struggles, building solidarity and mutualism at a time when communities are being prised apart by global politics. Antisemitism within the left did not start with Labour’s current leader. He could, however, now help to end it.

Source: The left must restore the ties between antisemitism and other racism

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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