Life & Culture

Review: Looking for an Enemy: Eight Essays on Antisemitism

Glanville relates how the age-old blood libel against Jews has once again resurfaced in both right-wing rhetoric and in left-wing diatribes against Israel


Pro-Palestinian activists and supporters wave flags standing on the enterance to Marble Arch Underground Station during a demonstration in support of the Palestinian cause as violence escalates in the ongoing conflict with Israel, in central London on May 15, 2021. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Looking for an Enemy: Eight Essays on Antisemitism

By Jo Glanville (Ed)

Short Books, £9.99

Reviewed by David Conway

As recent events have spectacularly shown, violent attacks on diasporic Jews have typically followed heightened tension between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Yet the Gaza attacks and response and the encounters in Jerusalem followed a protracted period of relative calm. Even so, that same period witnessed a sharp rise in violent and verbal assaults on Jews, more from right-wing extremists than from Islamists. Many of the verbal assaults have also come from those harbouring left-leaning sympathies, impatient at continued Jewish support for Israel, which they often consider a racist, apartheid state, guilty of all manner of human rights violations.

It is to report on the recent global upsurge of antisemitism that this anthology has been assembled. Its editor, British journalist Jo Glanville, borrows its title from that of the contribution by fellow British journalist Daniel Trilling who, in his essay, observes that: “Across a turbulent world today, the far right is once again looking for an enemy to name… [and] antisemitic conspiracy theory provides it.”

New York rabbi and civil rights activist Jill Jacobs sounds a similar note in her contribution. Imputing “dog-whistle” antisemitism to the campaign rhetoric that brought Donald Trump to power in 2016, she claims it gave American right-wing extremists “a licence to hate” Jews, as she entitles her contribution. Noting how the final advertisement of Trump’s 2016 campaign briefly displayed images of three prominent American Jews while simultaneously warning about “those who control the levers of power in Washington”, Jacobs then observes: “It is no coincidence that antisemitic incidents, including violent ones, rose during Trump’s term in office… Trump’s campaign advertisement… [has] roots in longstanding antisemitic conspiracy theories depicting Jews as a secret global power structure attempting to undermine the world.”

In her own contribution, Glanville relates how the age-old blood libel against Jews has once again resurfaced in both right-wing rhetoric and in left-wing diatribes against Israel. On the same day in April 2019 as a right-wing extremist murdered a 60-year old woman and injured three others by opening fire in a San Diego synagogue, Glanville relates that a rant appeared on his website citing a notorious 15th century blood-libel to illustrate the ubiquity of malign Jewish conspiratorial endeavour. The rant stated: “You are not forgotten Simon of Trent, the horror that you and countless children have endured at the hands of the Jews will never be forgotten.”

Glanville notes that the same trope surfaced in recent British left-wing rhetoric: “in a cartoon of a grinning Israeli soldier with his mouth, teeth, and hands covered in blood (shared by a Labour Party… local councillor in 2016).” Glanville makes the telling point that “no [such] cartoon can claim to be a political commentary on the abuses of the Israeli state— it becomes a racist attack on all Jews.”

As well as three other essays documenting widespread antisemitism in Poland, Germany and France respectively, an excellent explanation is offered by Kingston emeritus professor of Holocaust and Genocide studies Philip Spencer for the continued widespread antisemitism on the British left. He notes how many there have long viewed Jews as obstacles to the progress they seek: originally from Jews’ parochial religious self-segregation, later by their attachment to traditional capitalistic forms of occupation, and lately by their support for Israel.

In the final two essays, Jill Jacobs and Israeli historian Tom Negev discuss where to draw the line between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel and its Jewish supporters. Both consider the IHRA definition overly restrictive in terms of what public criticism of Israel should be allowed. In their view, academics should be able on campus to describe the entire Zionist project as racist, and to call for BDS against Israel. Neither considers, however, whether Jewish students facing hostility from their peers for supporting Israel, when such views are expressed on campus by their instructors, would agree.

David Conway is emeritus professor of philosophy at Middlesex University.


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