Book review: Julia Neuberger and Keith Kahn-Harris on antisemitism

Helpful handbooks on hatred


Antisemitism: What It Is. What It Isn’t. Why It Matters by Julia Neuberger (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £8.99)

Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and The Limits of Diversity by Keith Kahn-Harris (Repeater, £10.99)

Can it really be the case, as a recent poll commissioned by the JC suggested, that “fewer than half of British adults understand the meaning of the word “antisemitism”? This of course is not a measure of the absence of anti-Jewish feelings or prejudice in the UK — would that it were — but it might give campaigners against what the historian Robert S. Wistrich termed the “longest hatred” pause for thought.

How can the Jewish community best raise awareness of — and, if need be, defend itself against — this seemingly ineradicable phenomenon incorporating pejorative beliefs about, and negative feeling towards, Jews? What strategies should Jews adopt — and avoid — in the face of a growing sense of unease about anti-Jewish rhetoric and acts of hostility? Two new books, bang up-to-date in their references to current social and political events (the shenanigans in the Labour Party are of particular interest to both authors) offer differing perspectives on this fraught theme.

As befits a Progressive rabbi and crossbench peer of the realm, Julia Neuberger’s approach could be characterised as, “let’s take it seriously but not hysterically over-react.” This sensible, if a tad predictable, stance underpins her short, lively, whirlwind tour of contemporary manifestations of antisemitism, whether stemming from the left or the right of the political spectrum in the UK, the US and Europe. After a cursory review of the historical roots of antisemitism — she fingers the usual suspects: the early Church, medieval Christian polemics, blood libels, Martin Luther, strands of Islamic theology, 19th-century pseudo-science on “races” — we reach the heart of her current concerns. She wants to illuminate how and why what she terms the “mood music” about Jews in Britain has changed.

Here, the seemingly intractable Israel/Palestine question looms large, and the way in which the antagonisms generated by this conflict in the Middle East shade into antagonisms towards Jews in general. Neuberger makes a clear distinction between criticism of Israel’s right to exist — “antisemitic”— and criticism of Israel’s policies/actions, which is “legitimate”, she suggests, as is criticising “Zionism as a political philosophy”.

But this apparent clarity is immediately fudged with the rider: “It all depends on how it is done”. And this, perhaps unwittingly, illuminates one of the central dilemmas around much of the emotion that surrounds contemporary antisemitism debates – its deep subjectivity.

Both authors highlight the inadequacy of the so-called “MacPherson Principle”, which emerged from Sir William MacPherson’s 1999 report into police failures in prosecuting the murderers of Stephen Lawrence. He suggested that a “racist incident” should be defined as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”.

Keith Kahn-Harris’s nuanced discussion of this is illustrative of his more sophisticated approach to the deeper sociological and psychological complexities of this topic: “…the principle raises as many questions as it answers… it does not really grapple with the ways in which members of minority groups may perceive racism very differently from each other… in any case, are there really no limits as to what should be taken seriously as a complaint of racism or antisemitism?”

As a sociologist versed in the politics of diversity, and sceptical as to whether hatred can ever disappear from the human heart, Kahn-Harris is prepared to ask some hard and provocative questions. For example: “could a change in Jewish behaviour result in a change in the level of antisemitism?” Many Jews are unwilling to go into these emotionally laden questions, but Kahn-Harris’s brave attempt to open up such difficult issues, in a manner that is both personal and scholarly, is particularly to be commended.

Howard Cooper is rabbinic director of spiritual development, Finchley Reform

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