Why Labour has a problem with Jews
The new anti-Semitism is identity politics in action.
Sociologist and social commentator
The attitude of certain sections of the British Labour Party towards Jews raises some important and difficult questions. One of the most striking things in this scandal is that the very term anti-Semitic has become the subject of controversy. In the post-Holocaust era, even many people who dislike Jews consider it bad taste to be explicit about their prejudice. This means that the language around anti-Semitism has become self-consciously vague, indirect and dishonest.
For example, many Labour Party operatives, including Jeremy Corbyn, are prepared to acknowledge that their movement has a ‘problem’ with anti-Semitism. ‘Yes, there is a continuing problem’, said Corbyn last week. But what does the word ‘problem’ imply? Is the problem that his party is anti-Semitic? Or is it that his party is not very good at censoring its most enthusiastic anti-Semites? Or is the problem that a noisy section of British Jewry is kicking up a fuss and giving Corbyn a hard time?
It is precisely because 21st-century anti-Semitism has such an elusive and deceptive quality that the current controversy is focused on the reluctance of the Labour leadership to accept the full definition of anti-Semitism drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). There is something truly byzantine about a controversy over anti-Semitism masquerading as debate about definition. As a sociologist, I am always wary of attempts to reduce a social phenomenon to a readymade definition. No single definition can capture a reality as complex and fluid as 21st-century anti-Semitism. Even the authors of the IHRA definition seem to recognise this: this is why their definition of anti-Semitism is followed by numerous illustrations of what anti-Semitism looks like in practice. Presumably, as anti-Semitism mutates into new forms, this list will expand.
The IHRA definition is both subjective and imprecise. Some defenders of Labour have seized upon the subjective nature of the definition to reinforce the idea that everything is okay within their party. They rightly argue that the IHRA definition takes Jewish people’s perceptions and feelings as the basis for deciding whether an act or statement is anti-Semitic. However, in the very act of objecting to the subjective element, they expose their own double standards when it comes to prejudice.
So these same critics of the IHRA do not object when it is argued that black people should get to decide if someone is racist. They always uphold the absurd idea of unwitting racism: that racism is by definition subjective. Critics of the IHRA are happy to allow Muslims, gay people and others to determine whether or not they have been victimised. Yet when Jews demand the same right, they are accused of practising Jewish exceptionalism. Even Labour people’s correct criticisms of the IHRA expose the fact that they treat Jews differently to other minorities.
The new anti-Semitism
Twenty-first-century anti-Semitism in Western societies has many features that are quite distinct from the anti-Semitism of previous eras. There are of course residues of old Judeophobia. And yes, ancient blood libels and conspiracy theories have survived and are periodically given a new lease of life on social media. However, these primitive, crude forms of anti-Semitism largely exist on the margins of society and rarely intrude on mainstream public debate.
Today, anti-Semitism in the West is largely cultural rather than religious or fascistic. We are witnessing the rise of cultural anti-Semitism. Despite the fact there are many influential Jews in the media and in the cultural sector, increasingly Jewishness, and in particular its association with Israel, runs against the grain of the current zeitgeist.
Not so long ago, Anglo-American culture pushed a positive image of Jewishness. It sacralised the Holocaust as a singular crime against humanity and adopted a fairly unambiguous stance of fighting anti-Semitism. But recently, something important has changed. Since the turn of the century, Anglo-American society, with its new identitarian outlook, has come to regard with suspicion the characteristics and behaviour associated with Jewishness.
In an age when white privilege is a cultural crime, Jewish privilege and supposed Jewish influence are treated with contempt and resentment. Often this reaction against ‘Jewish privilege’ meshes with hostility to Israel to produce a unique 21st-century species of anti-Semitism. This is why even in an age when victims are routinely celebrated, the oppression of Jews and the experience of the Holocaust are not seen as legitimate claims to victimhood. Indeed, the Holocaust is often turned against the Jews. Israel is often depicted as the heir to Nazi Germany. Former mayor of London Ken Livingstone continually promotes this mendacious argument, with his assertions that Hitler was a great friend of Zionism.
Cultural anti-Semitism is not simply a case of disliking Jews. No one is obliged to like Jews, or any other people. No, what cultural anti-Semitism represents is the devaluation of the cultural practices and values that are supposedly characteristic of Jews. At a time when ‘checking your privilege’ has been turned into an artform, Jews have been assigned a role in which they have an inordinate amount of privilege to check. Increasingly, these ‘privileged’ people, these super-privileged ‘whites’, are deemed to be responsible for the sins of neoliberalism, consumerism and biased media coverage.
Cultural anti-Semitism is also heavily influenced by the attitudes of the growing Muslim constituencies of the West. Muslim animosity towards Israel is sometimes expressed through hatred towards members of the Jewish community in Europe. Jews serve as a proxy for Israel, and as legitimate targets for hostility. Among certain sections of the cultural elite, it is considered impolite to talk about Muslim anti-Semitism. People are likely to respond by saying that anti-Semitism is far less of a problem than Islamophobia.
Paradoxically, Muslim anti-Semitism draws on Europe’s old-school right-wing anti-Semitism. Old ideas about Jews not being trustworthy have made a comeback. This outlook is often expressed through a narrative of suspicion about ‘them’ or ‘those people’. Such euphemisms are about moral distancing, from a people deemed to be cliquey, strange and unusually powerful. And inevitably, such attitudes provide a hospitable environment for the flourishing of conspiracy theories about a Jewish-dominated media or financial sector. Apparently, Jews who work in the media or finance are not individuals who happen to be Jewish — they are part of an organised Jewish network. On a global level, this obsession with Jewish influence can be seen in the popular fantasy about an all-powerful ‘Jewish lobby’ orchestrating the foreign policy of the US and other Western powers.
The synthesis in Europe of Muslim animosity towards Zionist Jews and a more traditional Western suspicion of insidious Jewish influence established the terrain on which 21st-century anti-Semitism could flourish.
The ‘problem’ with anti-Semitism
Cultural anti-Semitism is trapped by a predicament of bad faith. It is a synthesis of self-deception, cowardice and prejudice. It is expressed through a language of vague euphemism. Its favourite terms – problematic, inappropriate – rarely clarify the issues at stake. In these circles, it is sufficient now to refer to Jews as ‘those people’, ‘they’ and ‘them’. It is this discreet form of anti-Semitism that prevails in the realm of identity politics and among much of the new left. So long as such attitudes remain vague and discreet, then the Labour Party can say it does not have a problem with anti-Semitism.
However, from time to time some Labour members forget to express themselves in the language of euphemism. Woke advocates of identity politics will sometimes refer to Jews as ‘Zios’. Anti-Israel rhetoric sometimes mutates into something that sounds remarkably like blood-and-guts anti-Semitism. Some in and around Labour do not openly challenge anti-Semitic sentiments. People who ought to know better look the other way and pretend they did not hear a very public slur against Jewish people.
We can now understand what Corbyn meant when he said Labour has a problem with anti-Semitism: this problem is that a section of his party is not prepared to confine itself to the wink-and-nod form of anti-Semitism. Instead, every now and then, their visceral dislike of Zionism and Jews leads them to breach the informal rules of discreet anti-Semitism. Corbyn’s problem is that he relies on supporters who are often at the forefront of chanting anti-Semitic slogans on anti-Zionist demonstrations. No doubt he is not lying when he says he is not anti-Semitic. But he is also an opportunist politician who understands that securing the support of the relatively large Muslim constituency is far more important than placating the relatively small Jewish community. Regardless of his personal attitudes towards Jewish people, Corbyn’s acquiescence to the airing of anti-Semitic views marks him out as an untrustworthy collaborator.
Today’s politicisation of culture, identity and victimhood has no problem with Jews as long as they know their place and check their privilege. It is even happy to acknowledge the suffering of Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust. However, it is hostile to Jews who are not prepared to accept their demotion to the bottom of the hierarchy of victimhood. And it is certainly hostile to Jewish people who possess any degree of affection for Israel. Instead of debating the rights and wrongs of the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, we should be fighting the cultural norms that now underpin the assault on the identity of Jews.
Frank Furedi’s new book, How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the 21st Century, is published by Bloomsbury Press.
Picture by: Getty