First, the obvious. When the Daily Telegraph cloaks its racist opposition to Black Lives Matter by inventing accusations that the movement is antisemitic, and when Keir Starmer sacks the lone, bothersome leftwinger in his shadow cabinet by accusing her of antisemitism, neither of these things has anything to do with Jews. It is not really about protecting a small minority community from harm. Jews are being harnessed to quite other agendas.
That is not the same, though, as saying that antisemitism is only incidental to these stories. Instead, a certain projected fantasy, an idea of ‘the Jews’ has come to signify something powerful to the right and to liberals. Once they saw us as dangerous Semites infesting European society. Now instead we are their favourite pets: heroic colonists in the Middle East and successful citizens in the West.
The wording in the Telegraph was telling. “Extreme anti-racists” hate Jews, they said. That might seem a bizarre claim, until you reckon with this philosemitic image of Jews as the protected minority of European civilisation. They need that image. It gives a thin progressive hue to their deep anxieties that the wretched of the earth – in the 1990s it was Muslim youths in France, after 2015 it was a social-democratic electoral project, now it’s black protesters on our streets – constitute a threat to the white world order. Jews are conscripted as the alibi of white society. We are the useful props for a moral panic, and this campaign has as much to do with protecting Jews as Section 28 did with protecting children – or, for that matter, as Israeli ‘pinkwashing’ does with protecting LGBT people. In each of these three examples, power defends itself by claiming a fragile, vulnerable group needs its protection from the savage hordes.
Implicitly or explicitly, establishment politicians buy into the bigoted picture of Jews as exemplars of a global elite, and they defend us on that basis; as the old Yiddish joke had it, ‘the philosemite is the antisemite who loves Jews’. Anti-antisemitism can become a widespread moral panic about radicalism only by following the antisemite in constructing Jews as stand-ins for power at a moment of crisis for neoliberalism. Hence Emmanuel Macron leapt to label the gilets jaunes a threat to French Jews, while in Britain a Labour MP opines that anti-capitalism is necessarily antisemitic and the headmaster of a private school sees complaints about the children of the rich dominating public life as analogous to Nazi antisemitism. In the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, a respected journalist compared John McDonnell’s plans to tax the top 10% of earners to “the confiscation of Jewish assets in Germany and elsewhere [which] signalled the start of the Holocaust”.
As a result, it has become impossible to think and talk about a real phenomenon of increasing antisemitism, evidenced in countless surveys and in rising violence. We desperately need to understand how the same crises of neoliberal technocracy that have produced this panic have also produced a real uptick in antisemitism; people grasp for the words to talk about power and inequality again after decades of muffling that conversation, and sometimes they reach crude and awful answers. The ‘end of history’ ruled out grand social transformation in 1989, then 9/11 and the War on Terror taught us that politics was still possible so long as its antagonisms were cultural. That established a perfect storm for revived antisemitism. If Islamophobia answers anxieties about security and identity, antisemitism answers anxieties about power and the economy. After 2008, those kinds of fears understandably made a comeback, which is why the radical left is so crucial in beating antisemitism with better answers.
It is impossible to say any of this now, and to be heard. This subject gets engulfed in a moral panic that has little real connection to antisemitism, and is instead about using Jews as a foil to defend power. The panic has aggressively eclipsed the very possibility of an anti-racist language for talking about antisemitism. It has recklessly muddied the waters between real antisemitism and legitimate anti-Zionism, which will encourage disastrous scepticism towards boys crying wolf. In debates, you get forced to choose between denying there is any antisemitism, or else admitting it and so conceding to a campaign that wants to disappear Palestinians, batter the left, and cast suspicion over any radicalism. It is an absurd choice, and one that will end up glamorising antisemitism as its predictable and utterly avoidable outcome.
The latest scandal is a case in point. Like all settler-colonial ‘fortresses in the wilderness’, Israel is a crucial laboratory for global practices of racist violence. It has made an international industry out of training police forces, including in the US. Donald Trump calls for America to mimic Israel’s racial profiling. In Athens, protests against austerity are met with Israeli teargas. The beauty amid this carnage is the possibility it creates for global alliances connecting people everywhere seeking freedom: when Black Lives Matter protests first began in Ferguson, Palestinians sent advice about how to stay strong in the face of teargas.
The actress Maxine Peake, fresh from a trip to Palestine, observed these links in a casual comment that then cost Rebecca Long-Bailey her job. Peake may have been incorrect that Israeli police forces taught the American state the particular chokehold they used to murder George Floyd, but seen against this backdrop of racist violence and resistance, what does it tell us about the Labour party that a mistake like that was punished immediately and harshly? Antisemitism exists, including on the left, and people should be sensitive to delusions of Jewish omnipotence when speaking about Israel. But pursuing every misstep in talking about Israel for evidence of antisemitism is deeply troubling. Cowing discussion of Israeli brutality only reproduces the old colonial malaise, where Palestinians are rendered invisible. How Kafkaesque and how convenient that mentions of murderous racism have now been chilled in the name of anti-racism. It helps nobody.
Anyone who thinks throwing Palestinians under the bus is the price to pay for really cherishing Jews should ask themselves this: when Keir Starmer treats an attack on Israeli police brutality as an attack on me – on all Jews – what does that tell us about how he sees me, and how he thinks of Jews?
Barnaby Raine is a PhD student in History at Columbia University.