Azeem Rafiq'a apology was good - but the proof of his sincerity will be found after time has passed

His racism does not cancel out the racist abuse he faced - and the racism he faced should not cancel out the racism he meted out

November 24, 2021 11:09

Last week I watched Azeem Rafiq testify to Parliament about the racism he suffered as a player at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Casual but cruel racism is still far too pervasive and listening to his harrowing testimony, I felt a mixture of sympathy and anger.

So when a friend sent me a tweet with a screenshot of antisemitic comments Rafiq had made on social media a decade earlier, my first feeling was shock. My next feeling was anxiety – I hoped in some way it was a misunderstanding and it wasn’t actually him. Anxiety, because instinctively I knew that somehow Jews would be blamed for what would inevitably lead to a distraction from his own experiences of racism.

And so it has proved: “What did he take from Jews when he made his prejudicial comments at the age of 19?” wrote Vytautas, of Sheffield, to the Metro newspaper this week. “For racism to exist, there has to be a power imbalance and he had no power (at Yorkshire). Let us not misconstrue racism with prejudice.” 

Let us also remind ourselves what Rafiq posted: he suggested a player would be reluctant to spend money at a team dinner because “he is a Jew” but would still go back for second helpings because “only jews do tht sort of shit ha”. 

To the likes of Vytautas, unlike British Muslims, Jews are not deserving of the same sympathy. Even though Rafiq’s mere “prejudice” has its roots in a whole series of monstrous medieval fictions that Jews are both greedy and mean.

We Jews are weary of the claptrap that racism against Jews is somehow different, less endemic, not structural – a distraction from “real” racism. David Baddiel’s excellent book Jews Don’t Count is littered with examples of how racism against Jews is ignored, minimised, justified. 

Rafiq apologised but for a small minority of Jews the hypocrisy was too much, and it was flatly refused. Some of the charges levelled against him are that he is only sorry he got caught, that he probably still thinks those things, and that this minimises his own experiences as a victim.

It is certainly true that there have been far too many instances of antisemitism in the public arena and apologies – if they come at all – are often equivocal, forced, or leave you wanting more. We can’t in good faith critique apologies if in our hearts we know there is no apology we will ever be willing to accept. And yet, a society which does not allow people a way back when they have shown genuine contrition is one which is destined for failure.

In the 24 hours after Rafiq’s comments were made public, there is no more we could have asked him to do. His apology was swift and unequivocal and at no point did he try to minimise his hurtful words – “at no point will I ever try to defend the indefensible”. Only he knows if he is sincere but in terms of an apology, there isn’t more we can ask of him.

This whole episode shows that two things – or multiple things – can be true at the same time. Being a victim of racism does not prevent you from also being a perpetrator of racism. Rafiq showed great courage when he shared his testimony but he also caused hurt by peddling tropes against Jews. His racism does not cancel out the racist abuse he faced in as much as the racism he faced should not cancel out the racism he meted out.

Not wanting to recognise that victims can be perpetrators often inhibits Jews from calling out antisemitism from those who are also victims themselves. This is especially problematic when antisemitism comes from within Muslim communities.

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research showed that most Muslims are not antisemitic (and it is damaging to stigmatise all Muslims as such) but also, sadly, that a significant proportion do hold bigoted views about Jews to a greater degree than the general population. Or as the British Muslim commentator Mehdi Hasan put it: “it pains me to have to admit this but antisemitism isn't just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; it's routine and commonplace”.

The danger with wading into this arena is that it is so vulnerable to manipulation by those who have an agenda. I note that Rafiq has already been embraced by the campaigning organisation MEND which self-promotes as working for a cohesive society. No doubt Rafiq is unaware of MEND’s history of inflammatory comments from some of its senior members. Sometimes it can just seem easiest to avoid this minefield all together. That, too, is wrong and dangerous. Vacating the space leaves it open to those who will be only too willing to fill it with venom. To quote Jonathan Boyd from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, “when we see such complex territory before us, we have a choice: to avoid it, fight it, or to enter into it with caution and thoughtfulness. I would advise the third: to enter it with caution, with a clear goal in mind”. He is right.

I can only hope Rafiq’s own experiences will allow him to reflect and to be a genuine ally against antisemitism.

The true test of his rehabilitation will be not today or tomorrow, but in six months from now, a year from now, and long into the future. Will he use his platform to call out antisemitism? Will he challenge it when he sees it? Will he educate others? To do so will require a proper understanding of antiqemitism, its history and how – to quote the writer Howard Jacobson - its “brouhaha of infantile conspiracy theories, theological claptrap, medical, gibberish, and psychological piffle” have become so deeply embedded even today in the minds of some of our fellow citizens.

Claudia Mendoza is co-CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council




November 24, 2021 11:09

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