If you are the 'right kind of Jew', you're empowering racists

It can be painful, but we must reject the affection of those who only defend the Jews they like from antisemitism

June 07, 2019 12:19

One of the most obvious things one can say about antisemitism is also one of the most uncomfortable and potentially dangerous: “Antisemitism is about Jews.”

Why is this statement so problematic? After all, no one could deny that Jews have suffered from antisemitism and that Jews are deeply concerned about it. 

The problem is twofold. First of all, to say that antisemitism is about Jews risks ignoring the ways in which the Jew of the antisemitic imagination is often a “Jew”; a fantasy figure unrelated to who Jews actually are. Second, to say that antisemitism is about Jews risks opening the door to victim-blaming, to suggesting that Jews are responsible for its existence and for its eradication.

So there are good reasons for both scholars of antisemitism and fighters against antisemitism to focus their attention on antisemites, to attempt to understand how their ideologies work and how to combat them. 

I have always been struck by how far books on antisemitism, by academics and campaigners, are heavily empirical, containing case after case of the phenomenon itself. The heart of the controversy over antisemitism in the Labour Party has been an intense dissection of particular events and comments, and this emphasis is right and proper. 

While it’s important to treat antisemitism as being about antisemites, sometimes this emphasis goes too far. Antisemitism is not an abstract offence against discourse. When antisemitism is expressed violently it is Jewish bodies that suffer its blows. And antisemitism has real consequences for real Jews, rather than non-existent fantasy ones.

I have been researching and writing about Jews for well over two decades now, as a sociologist, an employee of Jewish organisations and as a freelance author. When I started out, it would never have occurred to me that I would one day write a book about antisemitism. My interest was always in Jews and my primary commitment was to understanding and improving Jewish life. 

That I am now the author of a book on the subject is, in part, because antisemitism has become such a preoccupation in British Jewish life that it is no longer possible to ignore it.

But the main reason why I came to write the book is because, more than ever before, antisemitism has come to be more about Jews than it used to be, however uncomfortable that might make me feel. 

What do I mean by this? In my book I make the distinction between those forms of antisemitism that are based on an entirely fantastic projection of who Jews are, and those that are knowledgeable, at least in part, about who really Jews are. 

The former, I call “consensus antisemitism”; consensual because all Jews recognise it as antisemitism and because those who practise antisemitism of this kind assume that all Jews are essentially the same. When the shooter burst into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh shouting “all Jews must die”, he was practising consensus antisemitism.

This is the antisemitism that is most familiar to us; the kind with the longest pedigree and the most dreadful consequences. 
In recent years however, we have seen the emergence of a different kind of antisemitism, one that understands more about Jews and uses that knowledge to divide us. This type of antisemitism is often combined with a kind of philosemitism, or at least sympathy, for a certain kind of Jew. This is the of antisemitism that we have seen in sections of the Labour Party, where “good” (anti-Zionist) Jews are held close and “bad” (Zionist) Jews rejected and abused. This is also present in sections of the nationalist far-right who combine support for the good Jews of the Israeli right and its diaspora supporters and the bad, liberal, cosmopolitan Jews.  

To capture this strange combination of love and hate, I call this kind of antisemitism “selective anti/semitism”.
Selective anti/semitism is definitely about Jews. That is partly because at least some of those who practise it may be knowledgeable about particular Jewish traditions and may have strong and enduring connections with particular kinds of Jews. Many of those who have been accused of antisemitism in the Labour Party are long-term admirers and supporters of secular Jewish non-Zionist political ideologies and those Jews who hold to them. 

In the US in particular, Christian Zionist groups may have detailed knowledge of some Jewish practices, together with long-term connections with religious Zionists in the settlement movement in Israel. This identification with selected Jews and selected forms of Judaism cannot be dismissed as being based on a purely fantastic idea of what Jews are. 

Selective anti/semitism is also about Jews because it leverages and exacerbates intra-Jewish division and conflict. More than that: it uses the good Jews to fight the bad and dismiss their concerns about antisemitism. In turn, those good Jews are accused of being bad Jews by other Jews and their non-Jewish supporters. 

One of the defining features of the Labour Party antisemitism controversy has been the struggle between the pro-Corbyn Jewish Voice for Labour and the Zionist Jewish Labour Movement to be seen as legitimate Jews with legitimate views on antisemitism. 
Something similar happens on the right too, with Trump-supporting Jews in the US being used to dismiss concerns about antisemitism on the right.

We no longer have the option of seeing antisemitism as entirely about antisemites. As antisemitism has become selective it has also become intricately woven into the everyday lives of Jews. It is intimate, personal and divisive. This also means that we can no longer fight antisemitism without implicating Jews in that fight. 

Too often, the way selective anti/semitism is fought by Jews is to give in to its logic: Zionist and non-Zionist Jews accuse each other of being bad Jews, liberal and right-wing Zionists do the same. The visceral anger that different kinds of Jews feel about those Jews who they feel have condemned them to antisemitism, compounds already-deep conflicts that go back decades. 

We need to break this cycle, and refuse to give in to selectivity, denying non-Jews the pleasures of the watching us perform the good Jew-bad Jew dance. And that means doing something painful: refusing the selective love of non-Jews. 

We can probably do little to assuage antisemitic hate, we might be able to do something about fighting the philosemitic love with which it often goes hand in hand. Those who claim to love the Jews and to defend them from antisemitism must be held to account. If their love for us is confined to the “right kind of Jew”, they do not love us at all. 

It’s tempting to reciprocate the love of selective philosemites, much harder to refuse it, to tell them that they must defend all of us from antisemitism, not just the ones they like. 

Jewish insecurities about antisemitism are such that we desperately seek allies. To fight antisemitism alone is a terrifying prospect. But if our allies are simply using us to denigrate the sort of Jews they don’t like, then they are not allies at all. 

How then must Jews speak of other Jews whom they feel are empowering antisemites and betraying what it means to be Jewish? The best response is to acknowledge — perhaps with gritted teeth — that the Jewish people are diverse, that we do not think the same, and to insist that Jew-on-Jew conflict is a matter for us alone. We should not be using non-Jews to fight our internal battles.

So Jews must tell the world: all of us or none of us. Either accept the fact that all Jews deserve to be protected from antisemitism — even the ones you can’t stand, even the ones other Jews can’t stand. Because the choice of which Jew is a good Jew is not yours to make. 

Keith Kahn-Harris’s book, ‘Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity’ is published by Repeater Books on 11 June

June 07, 2019 12:19

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive