We need to talk about anti-Semitism
Where’s the outrage over the ongoing assaults on Jews and their institutions?
I felt genuinely spooked when I heard that gravestones in a 300-year-old Jewish cemetery in Rochester in Kent had been smashed just a few hours before Yom Kippur. I live close to Rochester, so I took this act of anti-Semitic vandalism a little personally. But what really spooked me was not so much the grotesque destruction of the gravestones as the way in which it was reported. Most media outlets seemed to think this act of desecration was not really big news. They didn’t give it the attention it deserved.
The low-key reporting of the incident at Rochester is similar to the media response to the attack at a synagogue in Halle in Germany earlier this month. A gunman shot and murdered two people, yet as far as the media were concerned this attack did not merit the kind of response given to school shootings or attacks on mosques. Within a few days, Halle was all but forgotten.
This media indifference to attacks on Jews can also be seen in the response to vicious assaults on Orthodox Jews in Crown Heights in New York City in recent weeks. Few media outlets are making a big story of this awful violence. It seems that for sections of the media, when Jews are attacked it isn’t so much a hate crime as an unpleasant incident, soon forgotten.
There are two reasons why anti-Semitic attacks are often reported by the media in a casual, low-key manner. The first is that in the worldview of Anglo-American identity politics, Jews are increasingly seen as the personification of white privilege. Jewishness is looked upon with suspicion by those of a ‘social justice’ persuasion. As I have argued previously, when identity politics dominates public life Jewishness will come to be regarded as a ‘spoiled identity’, as the sociologist Erving Goffman described those identities that are viewed as polluted or problematic.
Today, ‘white privilege’ is treated as a cultural crime. And Jews are often portrayed as a hyper-white community who have far more privileges to check than most others. Often, this reaction against ‘Jewish privilege’ meshes with a hostility towards Israel to produce a unique 21st-century species of anti-Semitism. This is why even though victims are celebrated these days, Jews’ historic experience of oppression, and even of the Holocaust, does not protect them from abuse or provide them with the cover of victimhood. Indeed, the Holocaust is often turned against Jews. Witness how Israel is routinely depicted as the natural heir to Nazi Germany.
Identity culture has no problem with Jews so long as they know that their place is at the bottom of the hierarchy of victimhood and if they are prepared to check their privilege. However, identitarianism has little empathy with the victims of anti-Semitic attacks. Indeed, it tends to contrast such suffering to the apparently more real, genuine suffering of more culturally affirmed identity groups.
The second reason why anti-Semitic attacks are treated indifferently is because they are often not very consistent with the broader identitarian narrative. In the social-justice worldview, anti-Semitic attacks only cause a stir if they are carried out by far-right elements – by white nationalists or Nazi-style groups. That is one reason why some in the American cultural elite are not taking the attacks on Orthodox Jews in Crown Heights very seriously. It was initially believed that the attacks were being carried out by far-right white nationalists, in which case they could have caused a discussion and provoked condemnation. But it turns out that, according to the victims, most of the assailants are young black men. And this inconvenient fact does not play well with the crusade against white privilege. So the Crown Heights incidents are filed in the ‘Let’s pretend it didn’t happen’ folder.
Strikingly, the vandalism at the Jewish Cemetery in Rochester was also immediately framed as a far-right incident. Dalia Halpern Matthews, chair of trustees at the local synagogue, blamed the incident on – you guessed it – Brexit! Among other things. She claimed the vandalism was a product of the EU referendum and the inflammatory language used by politicians during that period, which apparently has given people ‘permission to hate’. Since Jewish cemeteries are being vandalised across Europe, this casual connection between Brexit and the Rochester incident doesn’t add up.
The attempt to link an anti-Semitic act with Brexit is understandable since it is common to associate hatred for Jews with people on the right and the far right. And in some people’s (mistaken) view, Brexit is a ‘hard right’ phenomenon. The historic link between Nazism and anti-Semitic violence continues to frame how this form of racism is discussed. However, it is important to remember that, throughout history, anti-Semitism has assumed various different forms. And today’s preoccupation with Nazism is likely to obscure what is distinct about anti-Semitism in the 21st century.
In some parts of France and in areas of Eastern and Central Europe, traditional or ‘old school’ anti-Semitism retains some influence. Jews have not entirely lost their status as the stigmatised outsider; suspicion towards ‘those people’ remains an integral part of folk culture. In my experience, old-school anti-Semitism effortlessly makes its way into everyday conversation. Though quite unpleasant, it is not particularly virulent. It is casual. For some, this kind of anti-Semitism is a medium for expressing their cultural insecurity and their bitterness and frustration towards a world they don’t quite comprehend.
Matters are different in Western Europe, where hatred for Jewish people tends to be more subtly expressed. This new-school anti-Semitism sometimes draws on the conspiratorial imagination of old-school anti-Semitism. But usually, the language it uses is very different.
In Western Europe, people who have a problem with Jews, especially people on the left, rarely communicate their suspicions through the traditional vocabulary of anti-Semitism. Instead they use the language of bad faith. People express bad faith when they feel under pressure to adopt values that go against their own inclinations. So when people say things like, ‘I don’t hate the Jews, but these cliquey people are far too powerful’, they are choosing to self-censor; to disguise their true thoughts in carefully selected words.
New-school anti-Semitism invariably uses the language of anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism – it is perfectly legitimate to criticise Israel and to call into question every aspect of its history and its current political and military practices. The issue at stake is not Zionism, as such. The problem is that in recent years hostility towards Israel can, and often does, contain a venomous attitude to the Jews themselves. So when British Labour Party councillors post images on Facebook calling on Jews ‘to stop drinking Gaza blood’, it is pretty clear that their target is not really Zionism – it is Jewish people. Through resurrecting the infamous blood libel of medieval anti-Semites, they embrace the liturgy of the pogrom, only in more ‘acceptable’ language.
The case of the former Labour mayor of London and now ally of Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone, clearly shows how anti-Zionist rhetoric can casually mutate into hatred towards Jewish people. Livingstone tried to explain the difference between a ‘real anti-Semite’ and a ‘critic’ of Israel in the following terms: ‘A real anti-Semite doesn’t just hate the Jews of Israel – they hate their Jewish neighbour in Golders Green or in Stoke Newington.’ He is essentially saying which Jews it is okay to hate – those in Israel. This effort to distinguish between which Jews you may hate and which ones must be spared our hostility confirmed how easily a discussion of Israel can explode into animosity towards the Jewish people.
Something important has changed in attitudes towards Israel. Until recently, in their enthusiasm for letting rip at Israel some anti-Zionists inadvertently lashed out at all Jews. But broadly, their behaviour was not so much motivated by a dislike of Jews as by a hatred of Israel. That sentiment still prevails in some quarters. However, now there is a growing constituency of people who attack Israel mainly because they don’t like the Jews. In this instance, it is not anti-Zionism but plain anti-Semitism that motors their animosity towards Israel.
Of course, not all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, but in recent times the line between the two has become blurred. In Anglo-American universities and cultural institutions in particular, the confused line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is nurturing new forms of prejudice.
Some might think that BDS activists and other anti-Israeli voices don’t have much influence in wider society. In reality, higher education and other related institutions play an important role in providing the intellectual and cultural resources that allow anti-Semitism to thrive. And consider the influence that BDS ideas now exercise over the Democratic Party in the US and the Labour Party in the UK.
One of the most striking things about the new anti-Semitism is that the pushback against it has been very ineffective. For example, a lot of media attention has been paid to left-wing and Labour anti-Semitism in the UK, but little clear or successful action has been taken against it. One reason for this is because the critics of anti-Semitism are actually fighting against its older, past manifestations. In their myopic focus on far-right anti-Semitism, they are fighting the wars of the past and ignoring what is new and distinctive about anti-Semitism today. The challenge we face today is very different to the one faced by those who stood up to anti-Semitism in the 1930s. Yes, far-right Jew-haters still exist, but in the Anglo-American world at least, the principal foe today is identity politics.
Frank Furedi’s How Fear Works: the Culture of Fear in the 21st Century is published by Bloomsbury Press.
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