Over the weekend, tens of thousands of people in cities across the UK – including over 100,000 in London alone – marched for Palestine. Four of them were antisemitic.
The men who drove down Finchley Road on Sunday afternoon calling for the rape of Jewish women like me received instant, unanimous and unequivocal condemnation. As a Jewish ally of Palestine, I was ambivalent.
For while it was encouraging to see comrades disavow these men and restate their solidarity with Jewish people – particularly when some of us feel uncertain whether there is room for us under the left’s antiracist aegis – it was concerning that they felt the need to do so.
That Gazans like Omar Ghraieb should feel compelled to tweet in defence of Jewish people in north London while suffering active aerial bombardment is not heartwarming, it is depressing. That leftwing Labour MPs like Zarah Sultana should think it necessary to insist that “the Palestinian struggle for freedom is anti-racist at its heart” is not a helpful reminder, but rather the miserable result of a decades-long campaign to portray that struggle as antisemitic. It’s time to put things in perspective.
The material realities of Palestinian and British Jewish life are immeasurably different. Today, the millions of Palestinians who live between the river and the sea begin a general strike in protest at Israel’s latest attempt to annihilate them. This comes after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a further round of airstrikes on Gaza, where the IDF has already killed 197 people and injured a further 1,235. By contrast, Sunday’s racist speech is one of around two dozen antisemitic incidents British Jews have endured since the start of the Israeli onslaught, one of which resulted in physical harm.
As leftists, we are often afraid of being seen to participate in “the oppression Olympics”. Indeed, antiracism is not a zero-sum game. We can and must simultaneously oppose the verbal assaults on British Jews and the military assault on Gaza and the West Bank. Yet to equate the two is to lose perspective in our antiracism, and be distracted from a grave situation that urgently demands our unflinching solidarity.
There are good reasons why we, both leftists and Jews, have overlooked the cavernous discrepancy between the lived experiences of Gazans and British Jews. In the case of the left, the Labour antisemitism crisis bequeathed many – including those with long and well-documented track records of defending Jewish people, as well many Jews themselves – a sense of something to prove, namely their “zero-tolerance” approach to antisemitism. We preempt the familiar tar and feathers by attending extremely closely to antisemitism, often at the expense of other racisms (the still-unpublished Forde Report being a prime example of this). Jews’ own myopia takes longer to explain.
As I have written elsewhere, fear is endemic in Ashkenazi Jews. Many feel in their bones as if the Holocaust never ended; are convinced that Jews remain the victims (or potential victims) of vicious antisemites who pose (or could pose, given half a chance) as existential a threat to us as the Third Reich. “I checked for my passport last night,” wrote Rachel Cunliffe in The New Statesman on Monday, implying her belief that Britain could imminently become so unsafe for Jews that she would be forced to permanently emigrate – a terrifying, but also totally improbable prospect.
This post-traumatic anxiety, irrational and understandable as it is, leads British Jews to self-centre: the commonplace refrain “no other minority” implies an ignorance of the experience of other minorities, which we would soon realise, were we to meaningfully engage with them, are just as bad, if not worse, than our own. It also leads us to telescope history, collapsing past into present and vanishing the tectonic shifts in global power that have occurred since 1945. It is this same historical telescoping that has consistently led Israel to conceive of itself as a David to Palestine’s Goliath, when the truth is clearly the reverse. When, last Sunday, three synagogues and a number of Jewish shops were set on fire in the city of Lydd, central Israel, a number of Jewish people (including Israeli president Reuven Rivlin) declared a pogrom – despite the attacks occurring within a Jewish ethnostate. Reliving historic genocide, we fail to recognise the present-day genocide Israel is enacting in our names. The Holocaust ended; the Nakba never did.
There is another layer to this. It is likely that many of the British Jews who march in lockstep with the Israeli state at every murderous turn do recognise its awfulness, yet to clear their consciences and reclaim the moral high ground, level accusations of antisemitism at Palestinians; it is much easier to justify the ethnic cleansing of a people you have convinced yourself want to kill you.
There are many who would wish to take advantage of Jewish and leftist trauma and guilt. Boris Johnson, who equips the Saudi-led coalition for its merciless attack on Yemen, was swift in tweeting his dismay at the events of Sunday night. Not to be outdone, his opponent – who wanted to permit British agents to commit the same crime of rape of which the men had threatened – mounted his own high horse and tweeted from it. Neither had expressed the faintest solidarity with the mass of protesters who had taken the streets over the weekend, instead singling out a tiny minority with extreme and unrepresentative views. These politicians’ selective antiracism reveals an uncomfortable truth: white supremacy does posit a hierarchy of racisms, and – for now, at least – Jews are close to the top.
To point this out is not to indict Jewish people. On the contrary, Jews are the victims of our own model minority status, which forces us to absorb the frustrations of other racialised groups on behalf of the ruling classes, whom it in turn enables to doggedly pursue projects of colonialism and imperialism while projecting progressive values (“How can we be racists? We love Jews!”). If Jewish people invite this favouritism, it is only because we think it will keep us safe. It won’t.
The bind for leftists is that in taking antisemitism seriously, we are often forced into a position of minimising and even exacerbating the oppression of others, usually Palestinians. Right now in Gaza, which has no bomb shelters or air raid sirens, small children are comforting each other through unending airstrikes, as their parents frantically maximise their four hours of daily internet access to show the world what’s happening (The New Inquiry has compiled a list of Palestinian journalists here). Meanwhile, Israel continues to use coronavirus as a weapon of war. British Jews are not to blame for this crisis – yet nor should the blame that has been cast on us for it obscure the crisis itself.
The left must be resolute in opposing racism wherever it arises, be it four men shouting obscenities from their cars or a military superpower bombing children and journalists. We must also refuse to allow one antiracist struggle to derail another. If we take our eye off the ball, Sunday will be used as further ammunition to those who would use Jewish pain to batter Palestinians – it already is. The grand irony of this, of course, is that the movement for Palestinian liberation, unlike the Zionist ethnosupremacy it resists, seeks a world without racist violence for all people, Jews included.
Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media. She is also the editor of Vashti, which has co-published this article.