Thoughts on anti-Semitism

It is a long time since I wrote in this blog. There is a repeating pattern whereby a period of illness (in this case recovering from some surgery just before Christmas) sets me back in my ‘proper’ writing, rendering me too guilty to indulge in non-commissioned work until I have cleared the backlog. But eventually I feel so strongly about something that I have to break the self-imposed taboo. Something similar happened a couple of years ago when I found myself compelled to break the silence during the build-up to the Brexit referendum because of concerns about how it was reported. Today’s impulse also comes from a kind of horror at what is going on around me politically but this time the context is the whisked-up media attention currently being paid to anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, which, it appears to me, wearing my Cassandra hat, may be leading us towards something that is profoundly harmful, political and socially. (even though it might in the long run have some positive impacts by bringing what is hidden or taken for granted to the surface).

Despite (or perhaps because of) the huge media coverage, there seem to be important questions that are not being asked, or answered, adequately. There is of course a lot of discussion about where the attacks are coming from and why now: smoking guns aplenty for conspiracy theorists. The Tories, looking for any ammunition to use against Labour in the run-up to the local elections; the Israeli Government, happy to have pro-Palestinian voices silenced while they shoot unarmed civilians in Gaza; Blairites in the Labour Party who seize on any opportunity to attack Corbyn, regardless of its impact on Labour’s election chances; the mainstream mass media, drifting ever further rightwards with the BBC (fearful of the axe) rivalling the Murdoch press in its pandering to the Tories. This morning, on the Today programme, the fact that Corbyn had attended a meeting of Jewdas (‘a left-wing Jewish group critical of more mainstream Jewish organisations. organisations’, as the BBC put it) was treated as evidence that he was failing to address anti-Semitism in the Party in a piece of doublethink worthy of Orwell. The question that, it seems to me, is not being addressed sufficiently is how and why this particular charge is so difficult for serious socialists to counter. How is it that the energetic, resilient left, which has successfully fought back over the last couple of years against so many anti-Corbyn smears, can be so easily silenced when accused of something which that very socialist left has, over the years, done more than any other political grouping in this country to counter? What notions of good and bad, what intersections of fear and shame, what confusions, what extremes of guilt-by-association, have brought us to this pass?

So here I am again, adding yet another voice to the conversation.

Like last time, when I wrote about Brexit, I have been very hesitant about putting my thoughts online. On both topics there are many people much better-informed than I am. I feel a bit like the fool stomping in, in my muddy wellies, onto a polished parquet floor where even the angelic dancers hesitate before taking a tentative step. Not only is it likely that my generalisations will be quibbled with and my attitudes questioned as old-fashioned, badly informed or politically incorrect, but, in the case of anti-Semitism, there is also the undeniable fact that I am not Jewish, and therefore, perhaps genuinely insensitive to what is going on.

So I will start with a self-interrogatory personal narrative of what Jewishness means to me. I grew up with a strong awareness that anti-Semitism existed and was not easy to fight. My father was a student in Vienna in the 1930s and witnessed extreme forms of it first hand. He was a close friend of Muriel Gardiner (who became Muriel Buttinger after her marriage to Joseph Buttinger, the leader of the Austrian Socialist Party). Taking advantage of her family’s wealth and her US passport, Muriel played an active role in sheltering socialists wanted by the police from the Nazis and helping find ways for Jews to get out of the country safely, a role that was lightly fictionalised in the 1977 film, Julia, where her part was played by Vanessa Redgrave. My father played a small role in this (including helping to acquire British passports that could be used to get people across the border) and Muriel remained a life-long friend of his and, later, an inspiration to me. I have vivid memories of the last time I met her, over dinner in an Italian restaurant in Bloomsbury in the 1970s, in the company of my father and my friend Nick Redgrave, where she talked about her American socialist youth, collecting money for the defence of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1920. It was on this occasion that, when I admired the chunky Venetian baroque pearl necklace she was wearing, with typical impulsive generosity, she immediately took it off and said, ‘Here, have it!’.

Anyway, suffice it to say, this experience cemented for me an association between Jewishness and socialism. Like the rest of their generation (my father was born in 1902, my mother in 1907) my parents were by no means free of racial stereotypes. For them, Jews were clever, sensitive, musical and studious. They were good fathers but unlikely to be interested in sport or the consumption of alcohol. Some of these stereotypes were challenged when applied to the complex personalities of Jewish people I knew personally but many were not. I really did meet a lot of Jewish psychoanalysts, writers, university lecturers, publishers, musicians and artists. And an awful lot of them really were socialists. Most were also part of a shared culture which was secular and humanist and their Jewishness did not seem particularly important.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Jewishness, like other identities, felt to me like part of a historical legacy that would become less and less important with the progressive advance of universal education, and the spread of democracy and egalitarian welfare regimes. Religions, it seemed then, formed part of superstitious heritages designed to bolster hierarchies (including patriarchal ones), reinforce obedience to power, provide hope to people facing intolerable adversity and give them spiritual sustenance in their sorrow. While of course their practices should be tolerated and their rituals celebrated, their roles would increasingly be taken over by other communitarian agencies in the brave socialist future we imagined.

But I was sometimes reminded of the strength of Jewish identity, even among secular Jews. I remember a conversation with Michael Kidron (then my editor at Pluto Press) in which I was describing how international my family had become (my siblings’ spouses were, variously, Polish-German, Japanese, French and Palestinian – which extended in the next generation to Indian, Chinese and US spouses) and his immediate reaction was ‘Yes, but you’re all Goy’. I was also struck, living in Yorkshire in the 1970s, by the bonds that stretched across the Jewish community there, crossing party-political boundaries. When the National Front wanted to march through Leeds City Centre, this was stopped, so I was told, by Irwin Bellow, the Tory leader of the City Council, former owner of a company that made sewing machines (subsequently knighted for his services selling council houses as a minister in the Thatcher government) after a phone call from Lou Baruch, the communist leader of Bradford Trades Council (‘the textile workers’ champ’) – the anti-union capitalist and the trade union leader cheerfully colluding to thwart anti-Semitism.

In the early 2000s, when organisations like Jews For Justice in Palestine were formed in the UK, it came as quite a surprise to me how many friends I had up to then simply thought of as fellow socialists and feminists decided to identify themselves publicly as Jews. It had never even occurred to me in many cases that that’s what they were. I actually found it quite difficult to place myself, as a non-Jew, in relation to such campaigns, which seemed to construct people like me as outsiders. If one was campaigning on the basis that everybody was equal and religious distinctions should not matter, then it seemed on one level contradictory to insist on such distinctions. On another level, of course, it was very understandable. In a world where every non-Jew runs the risk of being (consciously or unconsciously) anti-Semitic, just as all white people run the risk of being (consciously or unconsciously) racist, then Jewish voices that stand against Israeli state policy have a unique chance of being heard out. Nevertheless, it left me, and perhaps others, with a sense of having nowhere to put my solidarity, a silencing of sorts.

This is not the whole story, of course. The atrocity of the Holocaust hung like a pall over my childhood, as I suppose it did for most of my generation. I didn’t even realise how deeply it affected me until I became a mother and found myself haunted by detailed and very concrete imaginings of the experience of deportation and the death-camps. What did you do, I kept wondering, crammed, standing, into a cattle-truck with nothing but the clothes on your back, when your baby needed a nappy change? When it cried? When it wanted to crawl? How did you cope with the leaking breast-milk when that baby had been snatched from you? Such questions, I realised, had formed part of the mental sound-track of my life since childhood, breaking their way into consciousness only at moments of emotional stress or vulnerability and playing who knows what convulsive riffs while they remained unconscious.  I can still remember, with great vividness, an experience at my North Wales primary school in the mid-1950s. Two boys were approaching kids in the playground with knowing ‘I’ve got a secret’ smirks, asking if anyone wanted to see their pictures. One by one, we were shown two well-thumbed black-and-white photographs, cut from a magazine, of the piled-up emaciated bodies that were found at the liberation of Belsen. It is hard to exaggerate the shock of this – not just the obscene reality that was represented in those pictures but also the voyeuristic frisson that these two boys seemed to experience, as if it were pornography, and the air of secrecy, as though these images revealed something so shameful that children were forbidden to view them. I am sure I am not the only person whose nightmares were invaded by these images. Such experiences confirm the idea of the Holocaust as something uniquely awful, incommensurate with other atrocities. Even to mention it in the same breath as other genocidal massacres can feel like somehow trying to diminish its importance. Small wonder that denying it is a criminal offence in many countries.

And then there is Israel. My early view of Israel was partly shaped by second-hand accounts of kibbutzim, which provided gap-year experiences to many more or less idealistic kids in the years after National Service was abolished for young British men. They seemed like a foretaste of socialism – sexual freedom and communal living amongst the orange groves. Israel was, in this view, the happy ending that awaited those who were lucky enough to have survived the horror and brave enough to fight for freedom, a view that was reinforced by the 1960 film Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, one of the first I ever saw on a wide screen.

Since then, I have become only too aware of how necessary it is to unpick such facile narratives and explore their contradictions, not least through my first-hand contact with the descendents of Arabs for whom the foundation of Israel meant being turfed off their ancestral lands. But such unpicking is extraordinarily difficult to do when the narratives are so highly-charged, both emotionally and morally.

I became acutely aware of this when I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. By coincidence, this, my first (and so far only) visit to Washington, took place only a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. I was on one of the first flights into a city where at least one of the other airports was still closed. There was a strange jumpy hysteria in the atmosphere, with military aircraft zipping overhead and people with their heads down hurrying to get home. Flags fluttered everywhere. Streets were almost empty. My academic hosts had arranged for me to have dinner with their Dean in a fashionable restaurant that served up expensive versions of poor peoples’ foods (things I had only ever read about, like hominy grits). The restaurant was almost deserted and the Dean wanted to spend the minimum possible time there, departing in the middle of the main course after asking the waiter to box up his food so he could take it home with him, ratcheting up the already high level of awkwardness for those of us who had to sit it out until dessert had been consumed.

Rejecting polite offers to entertain me, I decided, in the free day before my seminar, to visit the Holocaust Museum, about which I had heard a great deal. The experience was  immersive. As you entered, you were given a card with the details of a Holocaust victim with whom you were encouraged to identify (I am using the past tense here because things may have changed in the sixteen years that have elapsed since this visit). The first spaces that greeted you gave a historical account of Hitler’s rise to power, with photographs of mass rallies, the swastikaed flags in the photographs uncannily echoing all those stars and stripes waving outside. It was made clear that the Nazis attacked socialists and trade unionists, as well as Jews but the main story was about anti-Semitism. The next section of the museum reinforced this, with a historical account of anti-Semitism in Europe and lots of artefacts showing the rich cultural heritage of European Judaism. Then you were taken, step by harrowing step, through the detail of the Holocaust – the roundings up, the transport, the conditions in the camps, the death chambers. Incidental mention was made of  non-Jewish victims (the gypsies, the gays, the mentally handicapped, the socialists) but overwhelmingly the story was about Jews, and hatred of Jews, and the unspeakable consequences of that hatred. It was all made concrete and vivid, not just through identification with the avatar-victim on one’s personal card but also by the volume of material evidence. Everyone I have ever spoken to who has visited that museum remembers the enormous pile of worn, discarded shoes, heartbreaking in its very banality. Emerging, trembling from the emotional impact of all this, you entered the final part of the permanent exhibition, intended, I suppose, to be uplifting, covering the liberation of the camps and the resistance. The last room celebrated Israel.

I came out into the glare of the Washington sunlight feeling shaken and moved. But also, confusingly, a little bit tricked. It took a lot of thought to unravel this feeling and I ended up concluding that it was the result of the slow elision of oversimplified dualistic oppositions, a slippery my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my friend/if-you-are-not-with-me-you-are-against-me logic that, when extended, led one along a path that was too narrow, too exclusive and not quite where one intended to go. This is a logic that conflates the political and the moral and, by virtue of the power of that morality, creates a stage in which everyone must be a victim, a villain or a hero (not unlike Stephen Karpman’s victim-rescuer-persecutor ‘drama triangle’). It is a world of goodies and baddies with very little scope either for shades of grey or for personal change.  The logic goes something like this: Hitler = evil; Jews = victims; Allied troops = heroes. Since Hitler was bad, Jews must be good, therefore Israel must also be good. Anybody who is against Israel must therefore be bad (like Hitler) – including Arabs. Socialists fit very awkwardly into this logic. According to the Nazi logic, they are as bad as Jews (indeed they are often assumed to be Jews, or manipulated by them) who must be stamped out, which makes them, by anti-Nazi logic, victims and/or heroes. Their historical role as opponents of anti-Semitism and racism in many European countries also renders them good. However if they use the same reasoning that enabled them to identify dispossessed Jews as victims to recognise dispossessed Arabs as victims too, that makes them anti-Israel which renders them bad. They become like those optical illusions of which the eye can only see one version at a time, toggling wildly between good and evil.

There is a sense in which we all want to be heroes of our own biographies, casting others as fellow victims or persecutors, allies or opponents. But in a political landscape so shot-through with moral righteousness and outrage it is extraordinarily difficult to step forward with confident conviction of one’s own heroism, especially if one is not a central protagonist in the story. Indeed, the greater one’s self-awareness and knowledge of history, the more difficult this becomes.

I had a Catholic upbringing which impressed on me the importance of the nightly ‘examination of conscience’ in which you reflected on everything you had done that day and, if any of it was bad, resolved how you would put it right tomorrow: a sort of memory-scan for shame. This kind of self-examination is of course not unique to Catholics. Variants of it can be found in the practices of psychotherapy, for example, or the consciousness-raising that went on in women’s groups in the 1970s.

Many of us, perhaps especially on the white left, are acutely aware of our own inadequacies. When it comes to racism and anti-Semitism, there are few, I suspect, who can put their hands on their hearts and proclaim themselves entirely not guilty. My generation was brought up in a culture that was profoundly racist and homophobic. Did we really never snigger at the camp gay stereotype played by John Inman in ‘Are You Being Served?’ or laugh at the jokes in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ or ‘Love Thy Neighbour’? And how much of it washed off on us? We have had to admit that, even if we never consciously discriminated against a black person ourselves, we probably owe our relatively advantaged social positions in the British middle class at least in part to the history of slavery and imperialism. Even as we try to uncover our own hidden racism, we become more and more aware of how our society is steeped in it, how it takes myriad forms and changes over time, how difficult it is to disentangle concepts of cultural difference from those of discrimination, how complicated are the interactions between the past and the present in the formation of identities.

As with so many things in life, the more you know, the more you understand how complicated something is, and the more hesitant you may become about laying down the law to others. Yet alongside this growing comprehension of the complexity of human group inter-relationships, also comes an increasing awareness of how much unfairness and suffering and injustice there is out there. The impulse to remain silent is countered by an equally important impulse to do something about it (that’s what makes people join organisations like the Labour Party). But the interplay between these two impulses might create a sort of paralysis, or at least wrong-foot those who try to enter the public debate without having thought out their position carefully.

Justice is not a card game in which one kind of victimhood trumps another, rendering it irrelevant. We need a broader moral frame that recognises the co-existence of different forms of oppression, even the possibility that the same person, or group of people, might be simultaneously both an oppressor and a victim.

But articulating such a programme requires a degree of nuance that is beyond the binary logic of the mass media to cope with. And which of us, we might ask, has the right to propose such a programme? We seem to have arrived at a situation where non-Jewish socialists feel both unentitled to do so and held back by their very awareness of their own imperfections. I am not sure I am right about this but am wondering how much this might be the explanation for the diffidence (or perhaps even cowardice?) which non-Jews on the left feel about speaking out in the current debate. But speak out, I believe, we must. Somehow.

 

 

 

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6 Responses to Thoughts on anti-Semitism

  1. Excellent piece, I hope it provokes a lot of thinking. Btw, Michael Graubart’s father was very active in Vienna during the 1930s arranging passports for Jews to get out. I wonder if he and Murial Buttinger met? X

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  2. Christen Thomsen says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful essay. The charge of anti-semitism seems to me to be used as a way of freezing further talk. Shut up. There are evidently people in Britain who work hard at getting Corbyn outsted, and they’ll probably succeed.

  3. max farrar says:

    I picked this stimulation blog from Lynne Segal’s FB page, and very glad I was to read something which both set a personal context for this crucial issue and made the important theoretical point about the scourge of binary thinking (particularly when it sets up good/bad without nuance). I had the disturbing experience of taking students from Leeds Met University to Yad Veshem (the Holocaust museum) in Jerusalem. We had spent a week volunteering in the West Bank and a week volunteering in an Israeli eco-community. Yad Vashem left me in pieces, but the students felt manipulated (by the extremely professional guide). Instead of ramping up their sympathy for Holocaust victims as was intended (and, yes, the museum only spoke fully of the Jews who were exterminated), the guide ramped up their sympathy for Palestinians, and the exhibits (devastating, to me) hardly moved them.

    This alerted me to latent anti-Semitism among Brits who are otherwise good-hearted and progressive. Their anti-Semitism rumbled despite our Israeli host in the eco-village, a Jew of north African descent, having provided massive evidence that, originally, ALL the people of that region (Jews, Muslims, Christians and non-believers) considered themselves to be “Semites”, and despite all my own efforts as an educator.

    In my view, the Labour Party (which I’ve just joined, after years of hostility, to support the Corbyn tendency) has utterly failed in its proper role as an educator and campaigner for the rights of ALL those whose identity positions provoke abuse and violence. Its inability to work out what constitutes anti-Semitism is at the heart of the problem. These careful contributions from Stephen Sedley https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n09/stephen-sedley/defining-anti-semitism in the LRB should be studied with great care. It seems that Jeremy Corbyn has adopted a definition which lacks precision on the crucial question of how — in what terms, on what grounds — the actions of Israeli governments might be criticised. I do believe that this issue is being played by Corbyn’s opponents in all walks of life to damage the radical movement, but that should just make him — and people who support him — much more subtle in their response.

  4. max farrar says:

    oops: “stimulating”!!

  5. Michele Sedgwick says:

    Thank you,Ursula, and Max, for the deep resonance of your points,with which I concur.

  6. gemstest says:

    Thank you Ursula, and Max. I’m infuriated at the way the Guardian newspaper has used this most sensitive of issues to push it’s anti-Corbyn agenda, and to try to prepare the ground for a new centrist party.

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