Rosa Doherty

This is what happens when you challenge antisemitism

If you have used Twitter to raise issues of racism you’ll know it has more often than not been a case of writing 140 characters and getting nowhere at all

December 22, 2017 12:48

It is 2017 and, to put it mildly, it has been an extremely divisive year, marked by terror, Brexit, Trump, rising antisemitism, Islamophobia, and intolerance.

For minority communities everywhere, it has been an isolating time.

As the social affairs correspondent for the Jewish community’s main paper, I’ve covered some of what this has been like for the Jewish community.

If you have used Twitter to raise issues of racism you’ll also know it has more often than not been a case of writing 140 characters and getting nowhere at all.

Social media in particular has been a place where the divide has grown, and the hate has spread. So when a female anti-racist campaigner who I followed and admired recently made a racist comment about Jews in her podcast, I decided to do something.

The woman spoke in defence of Reggie Yates, a BBC presenter who was dropped from hosting the Christmas edition of Top of the Pops after making an antisemitic comment.

Mr Yates repeated an antisemitic stereotype when he said he welcomed the fact that Grime music stars were no longer being handled by  “fat Jewish managers”.

Not only was his comment racist, it wasn’t actually true. Most Grime stars do not and have never had Jewish managers.

Defending Mr Yates, the woman in question made the following comments on her podcast: “He [Reggie] is saying the truth and it just goes to show the power of a specific community that he can make a comment like that and everyone is like ‘whoa no, pull him from Top Of The Pops’.

"Why?  Are these Jewish managers not from North West London? I want to know where the fallacy is?”

She went on: “Black people in the entertainment industry have been short-changed so much by the kinds of people Reggie Yates describes. Why are we not saying it as a form of truth. The fact is these men have dominated the industry for decades. He didn’t say anything wrong. They are taking most of the profits.

“Apart from the ‘fat part’ I don’t see what he said wrong.

“They [Jewish managers] like blackness as long as it is making them money.”

She later added: “What is happening now is people demanding their pound of flesh and I’m very specific about the reference I just made.

“If you’re familiar with the Shakespearian play you’ll know where I’m going with this.”

I did not quite know what to think. This woman, somebody I had respected, was suddenly coming out with comments which made my heart sink. After mulling it over, I decided to contact her privately, thinking that perhaps I could explain why what she had said was offensive and maybe we’d arrive at a positive outcome.

This is what I wrote:  “I quite recently became an follower and admirer of your work and I want to start by saying I think your voice is really  important for a ton of reasons; anti-racism, feminism, intersectionality and female empowerment being a few of them.

“So when I saw that you had covered the Reggie Yates story on your first podcast, I can’t lie, I got nervous.

“We covered the story, obviously. I wrote about it and I was worried that you might reinforce the anti-Jewish stereotypes, similar to the kind of age-old racism experienced by the black community, that you so rightly challenge when you see it.

“When you did, by saying ‘he [Reggie] is saying the truth and it just goes to show the power of a specific community’ my heart sank. I want to try and explain why.”

I told her that as a Jewish listener it was clear that the community she was referring to was mine.

I explained: “The idea that Jews are this all-powerful master controller is literally what the Nazis said. It is the reason Reggie was dropped. Not because the Jews are ‘powerful and made it happen’.”

I explained what it was like as a Jew to hear this racist stereotype that has found its way into nearly every arena of life accepted as part of casual discourse.

“It is the kind of thing that if you are Jewish, when you hear it, it makes your stomach sink.

“It could happen to you at a party, it’s the kind of thing your non-Jewish best friend’s friend might say upon meeting you for the first time.

“It is so casually dropped into a conversation without a second thought, but it makes you want to withdraw from any social environment outside your own community and that isn’t good for society.

“It was painful, because this idea – that Jews somehow exercise a malevolent control over society, is an idea that was promoted by the Nazis, and remains at the forefront of far-right thinking today – the same far-right that is behind much of the horrendous racism against people of colour.”

I suggested that the danger in not addressing these everyday examples of racism was that minority communities become so scared and altogether exhausted by the intolerance they experience that they stop engaging with people outside their communities because it is easier not to have to deal with it.

I also thought it might be helpful for her to know that by promoting this kind of stereotype the far-right has, in recent years, managed to reignite Jew-hatred all across Europe.

“It is why Jewish schools are flanked by high walls and sometimes by barbed wire, it is the one of the reasons people give for hating Jews when they fire bomb synagogues, as in Sweden recently, or murder people shopping in a kosher supermarket for their Friday night dinner, as in France a couple of years ago,” I explained.

I offered to talk to her about any of this and explain further, and then I clicked “send”.

Within minutes, I had a reply. Not via email. But via Twitter, publicly.

She responded by asking: “What does the Jewish Chronicle do to tackle anti-blackness?"

And here we are. Back where this article started - someone makes an antisemitic comment and the response is not “I'm so sorry to have parroted a Nazi-style trope”, it’s "well, what does your paper do to combat racism against my community."

She went on to accuse me of threatening her even though I explained that, as a journalist, I could have written a story drawing attention to her comments, but instead I had contacted her privately to engage in a discussion.

In making my offer public, she drew attention to her own comments, highlighting her racism, and provoking the inevitable storm on social media, which she then blamed me for.

Had she taken up my invitation, instead of publicly trolling me, I could have told her about the times the Jewish community has challenged racism against the black community.

I could have told her about the work of the Jewish Council For Racial Equality, which works to provide a voice on race and asylum issues, or René Cassin, which works to protect universal human rights drawing on Jewish experience and values.

And the Board of Deputies, which works collectively with minority communities to challenge all kinds of racism.

I could have given her examples of how the JC reports on all this work. I could have described the occasion in 2015 when the Molton Brown founder Caroline Burstein sparked anger after calling black people “coloured”.

I was the only journalist in the room when she said it, and wrote about it. The comment would have gone unreported if the JC had not run the story.

As should be abundantly clear, we are living in a time when to be a part of a minority is to experience hatred, often on a regular basis. The only way we will be able to counter what at times seems like a tidal wave of intolerance is if we all – Jewish, Muslim, Black, Sikh, and others – stand together.

If messages sent in good faith, with the hope of deepening understanding, are rejected in favour of hysteria and hate, then 2018 will be as depressing as 2017 has been.

I fear for the future. I hope that the woman in question will, one day, realise that her assumption of such poisonous rhetoric serves only the racists whose dearest wish is to bring us all down.

But at the same time, I will not stop standing alongside those from other communities who are experiencing intolerance – as well as remaining open to talk to anyone who, reflecting on things they may have said, would like to know more. You never know, we may both learn something.  


December 22, 2017 12:48

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