Following the conversation on social media about anti-Semitism, Jeremy Corbyn and the U.K. Labour Party, I wondered why it was that some people continue to have trouble seeing antisemitism as racism. Here are some of my thoughts as to why that might be so.
Jews are perceived by some as powerful. Racism systematically oppresses the powerless “other.” So if Jews have power, they can’t be victims… But Jewish people know that despite times when some Jews have status or power, not all of us do. Plus the power in Jewish hands is often precariously held, it’s delicate and we’ve seen too often how it can be taken away in a generation.
Jews are perceived by some as white. This is complex, because we are not white. While some of us might pass as white, when racists say “whites only,” they don’t include Jews. And Jews of color do exist. We come in all shades. Speaking of which…
…Jewish people are not the same. Have you heard of “2 Jews, 3 opinions”? We don’t speak with one voice. So the “as-a-Jew” activist who says you’re not anti-Semitic doesn’t give you a pass if others have an issue with what you are saying. We can’t even agree on how to spell anti-Semitism (as Forward style has it.) Because it’s sometimes Anti-Semitism, or anti-semitism. Or, as it should be, “antisemitism.” Antisemitism, since there is no such thing as “Semitism” and since “antisemitism” is just a pseudo-scientific term from the late 19th century meaning “Jew-hatred.”
Jewish people are aware of the history of anti-Semitism and are sensitive to the tropes and stereotypes that it uses. Corbyn is either ignorant of anti-Semitism’s history and tropes, or he’s lying about not having seen them in the paintings and Facebook groups he’s championed. If he’s a lifelong campaigner against anti-Semitism then he should know what it looks like by now. (Indeed, to add to this, I think most non-Jewish people are ignorant of the history of anti-Semitism. the murky origins of why Jews became identified as money-lenders and bankers in medieval times, or why they were falsely accused of murder in the trope of blood libel and so on. Why should they have learnt this? But if you are a political leader, or someone writing about Jewish people or you go around branding yourself anti-racist, then you do need to know these figures, lies and histories.)
The history of anti-Semitism shows that it can exist on the right and left. So just because it’s being called out on the left does not mean the right is squeaky clean. And vice versa.
Only taking Jews seriously when they talk about anti-Semitism, if they also unreservedly criticize Israel, is a problem.
Finally — years ago a non-Jewish friend of mine asked me why it was that there was so much hatred and prejudice towards Jewish people. He’s a good friend and wasn’t being offensive, just curious and baffled. I answered that I didn’t know, and he should ask an anti-Semite why they hate Jews. I still don’t have an answer for him.