When veteran MP Diane Abbott argued in the Observer a little over a week ago that antisemitism is not a form of racism, few would have expected that her point would be so swiftly and dramatically disproved just a week later by a Guardian cartoonist using racial stereotypes to draw a prominent Jew.
But that’s what happened, and the combination of the two tells us something about the ongoing struggles some on the left still have to recognise and understand antisemitism.
The two papers are sister titles, so it is ironic that Martin Rowson’s depiction of the outgoing BBC chair Richard Sharp (who is Jewish), all big nose and lips and hooded brow, demonstrated in visual form just how easily antisemitism can take racist form.
Abbott, herself a trailblazer against racism and one of the prime victims of racist abuse in public life, had proposed the fatuous argument that the prejudice experienced by “Irish, Jewish and Traveller people” is more akin to the bullying of ginger-haired people than actual racism. This caused a storm and Abbott lost the Labour whip, issuing an apology mere hours after it was published.
Sharp’s cartoon was just as grotesque, but in a different way. As well as drawing Sharp with the stereotypically Jewish features favoured by anti-Jewish caricaturists down the ages, he compounded the offence by giving Sharp a box marked ‘Goldman Sachs’ which contained a pink squid and what looked like gold coins. Rowson denies that these are coins – he says they are the polyps on the underside of the squid’s tentacles – but tentacles themselves are also an antisemitic conspiracy motif.
Rowson and the Guardian have apologised and withdrawn the cartoon, but the fact this situation arose at all indicates just how much antisemitism remains a blind spot for so many. Don’t forget, it was a mural in which Jewish bankers were painted with big noses that proved the turning point when the Labour Party was under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but this does not seem to have left enough of an impression on Rowson to prevent him from doing the same. There remains a section of progressive politics that is, in the words of Mitchell Cohen, “the left that doesn’t learn.”
There is a deeper message here. Abbott made the common mistake of assuming that society’s current understanding of racism – that it is all about skin colour – is permanent, whereas if you wind back a century or more to the time when our cities were host to large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Jews were very much viewed as a different race to the British. Some still think in that way, and of course, Nazi antisemitism was predicated entirely on their own understanding of race. What we think of as racial differences and the politics that stem from that, can change considerably over time and place.
And while Jews in Britain today do not meet much systemic racism of the type experienced by people of colour, this has not always been the case. It is not that long since Jews were excluded from golf clubs and city firms in this country, or that quotas determined how many Jews could study at American universities. The Soviet Union practiced systemic anti-Jewish discrimination for decades. Just because antisemitism works in a particular way in today’s Britain, that doesn’t mean it has always been this way or that it cannot change again.
Taken together, these two episodes remind us that the left’s struggles with antisemitism are the Frankenstein’s monster of British politics, repeatedly coming back to life no matter how many people try to put it to sleep. We are left with the uneasy sense that for some on the left, anti-Jewish hatred just isn’t seen as that important.
Sure, Jewish people might get shouted at in the street, and occasionally a neo-Nazi or a jihadist might shoot up a synagogue. But it isn’t systemic, so the thinking goes. It doesn’t reflect the unequal ways in which power operates in our world, which is all about white people enjoying their privilege and people of colour being excluded from networks of power and influence.
There are numerous flaws in this way of thinking, all of which are wearily familiar after the struggles of the last few years. First, it assumes all Jews are white. Second, it erases the long history of antisemitism that was, and still is, of racist character. Third, it both encourages and relies upon those same old stereotypes of powerful and wealthy Jews.
And in the biggest irony of all, when these combine they produce the left’s own version of systemic discrimination, by excluding Jews from its own anti-racism. But any form of anti-racism that does not meet the challenge of tackling antisemitism is not worthy of the name. It’s time for the left to learn.
Dr. Dave Rich is Director of Policy at the Community Security Trust and author of Everyday Hate: How antisemitism is built into our world and how you can change it.