As Jews, we tend to be a surprisingly timid lot when it comes to expressing outrage — at least publicly. We shy away from what Americans call “playing the grievance card” — or what the British tellingly refer to as “special pleading”, with all that phrase’s overtones of deference and supplication.
In the US, disaffected groups show no hesitancy in raising their voice. But as anyone in the UK who has ever tried to have a civil discussion about antisemitism will tell you, far from raising our voices, we tend be apprehensive. Indeed, it seems that the reluctance to air our grievances is culturally hard-wired. Jewish tradition — liturgically reinforced in our daily prayer book — has inculcated a habit of counting our blessings.
When it comes to anti-Jewish slurs, characterisations, insults or downright calumnies, we also seem instinctively to avoid expressing outrage.
Is it that, recognising the depth of the seed of antisemitism in the cultural soil, we don’t know where to begin? We may also be sensitive to the accusation of advocating a hierarchy of pain, particularly when touching on the Holocaust. Is our group hatred worse than others? Is every antisemitic slur a mini-Holocaust in the making?
Instead of expressing our pain, we engage the rational side of our brains: we seek to expose false premises, peel back historical untruths and dismantle the twisted and obdurate logic of antisemitic discourse.
No sooner have Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people been vilified yet again with accusations of apartheid, racism or of following in Hitler’s footsteps, than we go looking to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, medieval superstitions or a thousand years of Judeophobic motifs in the Sisyphean quest for the irrefutable QED.
We reject playing the grievance card and keep to the analysis. And yet what keeps me up at night is a simple question: “Why?”
Why is it all right for Denis MacShane, Jim Murphy, John Mann, Lorna Fitzsimons or Julie Burchill to become outraged at the increasingly ambient level of antisemitism in academia, media or in social interactions? Why don’t we blanch when they use the A-word with impunity and no small degree of anger? Why do we feel that we have to hold back?
I pondered this at the exhibition at London’s Cartoon Gallery of antisemitic illustrations from Cartoons and Extremism. They’re all there: Jews eating babies, dripping with blood, spreading disease, decapitating, poisoning and transmogrifying into every imaginable form of vermin, animal and demon.
Reading Joël Kotek’s book elicited two responses. The first was physical revulsion. The second was the ineluctable, white-heat epiphany that these cartoons are intended to do just that: to malign, to hurt and manifestly to incite hatred in others.
In short, if the function of such cartoons — and by extension antisemitism itself — is to inflict pain, what is the correct response? Explanation? Ratiocination? Analysis? Or could it be an expression of hurt?
In the age of Oprah Winfrey, is it not time for us articulate the hurt we feel at Israel being compared to a Nazi regime? Should we not reframe our response to antisemitism, based more on its emotive content than its historical provenance? Perhaps, then, we will have taken a page from our non-Jewish friends in helping to create at least a level playing field in devising antidotes to this longest of ancient hatreds.
Dr Winston Pickett is director of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, www.eisca.eu
Cartoons and Extremism: Israel and the Jews in Arab and Western Media is published by Valentine Mitchell. An exhibition of images is being held at the Political Cartoon Gallery, 32 Store Street, London until 16th January