Being Jewish is an ethnicity, so let’s all sing the Jew Blues

My sense of Jewishness as an ethnicity is to some extent about what Nazis did to us

June 03, 2021 12:09

My book, Jews Don’t Count — what, again, with the plug? — is coming out in the US in what I’m going to call, annoyingly, The Fall. Before a book comes out, particularly in a new territory, publishers are now advised to get these things called sensitivity reads. These are provided by companies, whose job it is to scan the book, with the wokest eyes, to make sure it won’t offend anyone. They even have specialist readers: a sensitivity read company will have a designated trans reader, Latino reader, disabled reader, and more, all of whom will, for a small fee, comb your manuscript to see, basically, if there’s something in it that will get you cancelled.

One of my arguments in the book is that virtually nothing you can say about Jews will get you properly cancelled – exhibit 1: Mel Gibson, still totally getting parts in films — but nonetheless, my publishers paid for the sensitivity read. No massive alarms were sounded, but one thing was flagged by Tova, my reader. It was that some American Jews aren’t comfortable with the idea — absolutely central to my book, and indeed my thinking for many years — that antisemitism is racism.

The issue seems to be that describing antisemitism as racism implies Jews as therefore categorised as a race, or an ethnicity, and the problem with that seems to be, to put it banally, “that’s what Hitler did.” This attitude isn’t quite as prevalent here, but it is the reason, apparently, why the UK Census continues to have no box in its Ethnicity section for Jewish they based this decision on research from 2011 saying a sizeable proportion of UK Jews saw bad echoes in being offered that classification.

So. Even though I’ve always given that history great weight in in terms of its effect in the social, political and psychological present not least my own — the fact is that the Nazis imposed those conditions on Jews at a time when ideas of identity and representation, for any ethnicity apart from White European, hardly existed. In contrast, presently, all the power of anti-racism comes from an insistence on those things: on being identified and represented. This can be seen from the wide and detailed ethnicity boxes offered in the census, including three different Black categories, five Asian (split into east and south), a number of mixed-race white, Black and Asian options, Arab, white Irish and many others.

Given that many of these ethnicities were also targeted by the Nazis, the “but classifying us as an ethnicity is what the Third Reich did” argument doesn’t hold up. We live in a time — luckily — when ethnicity is something to be celebrated, not hidden. Jewish is offered, as an option, in the religion category. The problem with that is that I — and other atheist, or secular Jews — cannot honestly tick that box. Which means that for those who would suggest that Jewish should not be considered a race or an ethnicity, I am not a Jew. This is clearly not the case, not least, of course, in the eyes of the neo-Nazis and White Supremacists not asking if I keep kosher before they set light to my house. In the present conversation, identifying antisemitism as religious intolerance, rather than racism, just downgrades its importance, which is what leads to Jews not counting.

The endpoint of this idea was presented to me recently by a Jewish Labour Party member, who told me that during the Corbyn years, a pamphlet purported to be educating members about the Holocaust was circulating at one of the Party Conferences. It listed, apparently, all the groups targeted by the Nazis, including disabled people, gays, Roma, and political prisoners. The one group it didn’t mention was Jews. When the member made a complaint about this, he was told exactly what those would refute the idea of Jewish ethnicity say: why are you accepting a classification placed upon you by the Nazis? These are just white Europeans who were killed. Which means that the eventual conclusion of that argument is Holocaust denial.

Here’s the thing. It’s incredibly simplistic to imagine that, as a minority, our sense of ourselves should not include how, over the years, we’ve been thought of by the racists. My sense of Jewishness as an ethnicity is to some extent about what Nazis did to us. Of course it is. It’s not just about that — it’s about many positive things, as well — but the way that positive and negative associations combine to create minority identity is complex. Identity, particularly ethnic identity, is created in the story of survival against the odds, which is why the blues are songs of sadness, and fightback, and celebration, all mixed up. That’s what identity is. If you want to see both the negative and positive merged as one, think about the old joke that Jews tell each other about how you can boil down all Jewish festivals to a simple mantra: they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat. That is the Jewish blues, and we should all sing it.


June 03, 2021 12:09

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