Antisemitism: in the eye of the beholder

The JC Essay

By Mark Gardner, February 18, 2013

Most weeks, a quick read of the JC will show the extent to which perceptions dominate the debate about contemporary antisemitism. These perceptions arise on a personal or a communal basis; and may arise from any combination of emotive, philosophical or political drivers. Arguments about defining what is and is not analytically antisemitic, will (and should) persist, but ultimately it is emotive perceptions of equality and belonging that will decide the futures of Jewish communities across Europe.

Recognising this, in late 2012, Jews in nine European countries (including Britain) were extensively polled on their feelings about antisemitism, security and belonging. The poll was conducted by Ipsos-Mori and the Jewish Policy Research institute, with CST assisting in media monitoring for its duration. The results will take many months to process, present and publish.

The poll was sponsored by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union, which is keenly aware of the prevailing belief that many European Jews are fearful for their futures. This is not to say that Jews believe another Holocaust is imminent, nor even to necessarily say that antisemitism is the most appropriate word to encapsulate their worries. Call it what you will, but Jewish concerns about the future are being expressed with increasing urgency, with Hungary, Greece and France all providing obvious examples.

The results will provide an unprecedented opportunity for governments across Europe to hear and address the concerns of their Jewish citizens. Who knows, perhaps the bulk of European Jews are not actually that bothered about such issues. Alternatively, perhaps they are even more worried than the headlines would have you believe. Whatever the outcome, you can be sure that it will be pitched into the maelstrom of overheated debate that accompanies public discussion of antisemitism and associated issues. Of course, when it comes to skinheads desecrating a cemetery, there is little dispute, but many cases are far less clear cut. In particular, anything involving anti-Israel agitation risks provoking furious arguments as to what role antisemitism is, or is not, playing. In any year, I would estimate that between CST and the JC we must come across dozens of such disputes, if not hundreds.

The disputes follow a predictable pattern in which an extreme insult or action is directed against Israel, or “Zionists”. This is then perceived as being somehow antisemitic, leading to a vicious cycle of denials and counter-accusations. The situation is significantly aggravated by the sheer burden of history that the word “antisemitism” carries.

When it comes to skinheads desecrating a cemetery there is little dispute, but many cases are far less clear cut

The JC’s front cover two weeks ago typified such scenarios. It told how on Holocaust Memorial Day, Sunday Times readers were greeted with a cartoon showing Benjamin Netanyahu using blood as cement to build a wall, within which body parts were trapped. It also told how David Ward MP had signed a Holocaust book of remembrance in the House of Commons, before publicly linking Jewish suffering in the Holocaust with “atrocities” against Palestinians by “the Jews… in Israel”.

Taking both controversies as case studies, how do we perceive them: both as individuals and as a community? Did the cartoon’s use of blood tap into the notorious blood libel, including its ongoing use in some Arab and Muslim media? Did the publication date render the cartoon antisemitic? The cartoon was about Netanyahu, not Jews per se, so is the rest irrelevant? The Liberal Democrats owe the Sunday Times a bottle of best Palwin for taking the antisemitic heat off their man in Bradford, but the question remains, was his Holocaust-Jews-Israel linkage antisemitic, or merely crass and opportunistic?

Discussing both cases, the JC’s political editor, Martin Bright, spoke of “extremism” and “anti-Zionism” but made no actual mention of “antisemitism”. Neither Bright nor this paper are shy of calling antisemitism when they see it, so I doubt that he was trying to satisfy libel lawyers, while giving an enormous knowing wink to readers. Indeed, as a non-Jew working at the JC, Martin’s perspective is well worth hearing. So, what do we hear when we read in his article that at dinner parties people ask: “How do you deal with the Zionists?”

This captures the contrast between mainstream Jewish perceptions of antisemitism and how the matter is regarded elsewhere. When the dinner guest says “the Zionists”, how many readers instinctively hear this as fundamentally meaning “the Jews”? I doubt Martin’s dinner companions are card-carrying racists. They would likely be horrified to think their question about “Zionists” could be taken as revealing some sort of underlying antisemitism. The wounds caused by such differences of perception can easily fester, widened by perceived insults, and risk a mutual hostility that can break into open loathing and contempt.

This situation is pretty much where many communal organisations have now reached with various journalists, MPs, trade unions, church groups, charities and so on. It is a dangerous divide with negative impacts for Jews, including how Jewish concerns over antisemitism in Israel-related contexts are so often ignored, or even thrown back as a weapon against the mainstream of the community. It is one thing for Jewish concerns to be respectfully heard and then disagreed with, but it is entirely different to be reflexively dismissed with hostility and suspicion. Worse still, is to be pro-actively denied even the chance of a hearing; and when this is set in stone, as in the case of resolutions at the university lecturers’ union, UCU, what is left other than to decry that an institutionalised, essentially antisemitic, exception is being made for Jews and Jewish concerns?

Of course, we are assured that the dripping contempt has nothing whatsoever to do with our being Jewish, but is because we are supposedly “Zionist”, whatever that horribly abused word is taken to mean by our feverish detractors. This is no longer a dinner party discussion, it is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ local, with our antagonists playing their wide-eyed part against Zionist oppression. For ill measure, Jewish anti-Zionists will run defensive cover for their similarly Zion-phobic comrades; and we will be told that Zionists are always crying about imaginary antisemitic wolves.

See what I mean about perceptions? Antisemitism, including its denial, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to adapt another cliché — “one man’s antisemite is another man’s freedom-fighting critic of Israel.”

Antisemitism has an extensive heritage of slurs and motifs upon which to draw. Unsurprisingly, many Jews perceive echoes (or updates) of this hateful heritage within modern day anti-Israel and anti-Zionist imagery, propaganda and passion. In our angry and distressed reactions to such antisemitic resonances, we almost always, however, underestimate the sheer ignorance of both our antagonists and the rest of society.

This ignorance was exemplified by the infamous New Statesman cover of 2002, showing a golden star of David, piercing a supine Union Jack, and asking: “A kosher conspiracy?” Jews of all political opinions immediately denounced the image’s obvious antisemitism, but its actual publication revealed that much of the intellectual left cannot see Jew-hatred when it hits them squarely in the face. (This, despite their repeated assurances about condemning antisemitism.)

Never mind expecting the Sunday Times to recall the blood libel, how about nobody at the New Statesman noticing that its cover was blatantly racist. And what does this suggest about the easy resurrection of old antisemitic motifs? How can we trust others to recognise and police antisemitism when they cannot, by self-definition, see it in themselves?

All of this might be termed as discursive antisemitism, how Jews and Jewish issues are discussed and dealt with in public discourse. This is the component of antisemitism that is wide open to differing perceptions but it sits alongside the hard facts of antisemitic race-hate crime levels, reported in Britain and elsewhere around the world since 2000. Then, there is the ongoing reality of antisemitic terrorism, threatened by both our fellow citizens and actual overseas groups. Accurate reporting of both these phenomena underpins CST’s work.

The statistics provide data, but the single most important step in addressing UK perceptions of antisemitism was the 2006 Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism. This probed the statistics before accepting them as undoubtedly accurate. The question of perceptions of the discourse that surrounds Jews and Jewish issues was far more complex and contentious, but this was also examined at length and a raft of recommendations ensued, concerning police, media, prosecutors and government.

The recommendations were elevated to command status by the Labour government. The seamless progression under the coalition shows that communal concerns and perceptions are better respected now in Whitehall than ever before. Nevertheless, those of us tasked with discussing antisemitism in the public domain are well aware that many journalists, politicians and others can be sceptical about Jewish communal concerns.

Their basic presumptions and perceptions were hinted at in a series of focus groups, held about 10 years ago, that probed non-Jewish perceptions of antisemitism. There was, for example, an intelligent left-of-centre focus group that discussed Jewish-related statements by the then London mayor, Ken Livingstone and denounced his various utterances as plainly racist. There was, however, a complication: his statements were only seen as racist when they contained the word “black” rather than “Jew”. Put back in their original format, about “Jews” and they became legitimate comment.

Some readers may perceive this double-standard as a proof that the focus group itself was antisemitic, or that it made racist exceptions about Jews. If so, you are in good company, for no less a figure than Natan Sharansky declares double-standards as one of his “3D” tests for identifying antisemitism. (The others being “demonisation” and “delegitimisation”.)

Nevertheless, the left-wing focus group was expressly anti-racist and against antisemitism, so were they hypocrites and liars? Unfortunately, the same double-standard was exhibited by the other focus groups. Does this mean that all non-Jews are somehow antisemitic?

In fact, the double-standard had nothing to do with the focus groups being antisemitic. Instead, it had everything to do with their (if anything sympathetic) perceptions of Jews and antisemitism, within the broader contexts of history and racism. The focus groups associated antisemitism with the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, so much so that they assumed antisemitism had essentially been defeated when the Allies won. The war is now history and apparently the same goes for antisemitism.

The groups understood antisemitism as being about racism and they understood racism as being about colour. So, how can Jews suffer colour racism; and how can people be anti-Jewish if they don’t know who is Jewish? Then came the “facts” about education, housing, income, employment etc. So, aren’t Jews sufficiently well-educated, well-housed and, well, wealthy, to be obviously not suffering from racism?

The last question asked was: “How many Jews do you think live in Britain”? Given all the visibly successful Jews that the groups knew of, they presumed there must be at least one million, possibly many more. The true figure (263,346) was greeted with bemusement, strongly reinforcing the notion that Jews were such high-achievers that they could not possibly be suffering from racism.

So, by all means let us debate what is and is not antisemitic, but do not underestimate the power of perception. How should we perceive antisemitism, or associated feelings of vulnerability? Is it according to a cartoon in the Sunday Times — or how nice the table is at which we are reading the paper? Perception: it’s your choice.

Mark Gardner is director of communications at the CST

Last updated: 12:23pm, March 20 2013