Antisemitism: can we agree on anything?

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A review of Jo Glanville, Looking for an Enemy: 8 Essays on Antisemitism

I imagine everyone reading this blog would share some basic points about antisemitism. First, that there is more antisemitism (or at least more noticeable antisemitic speech) in the world than at any time in decades. The number and ferocity of physical attacks on Jews are at postwar highs. Antisemitism has been mainstreamed in several countries’ national discourse.

Second, it’s also the case that at the same time, the political far-right whether in its cultural, electoral, or street forms is more popular and successful than at any time since 1945.

From that point onwards, however, it’s likely that any consensus will break down. There must be a correlation between the two trends I’ve just outlined but it’s not obvious which dynamic causes the first. If you listen to Jewish writers: people who identify with the left tend to argue that it’s the growth of the far right which is causing the anti-Jewish racism. But other Jews, who support the political centre or right disagree. How could the far right explain what we saw among parts of the Corbyn Labour Party? Or in France?

This collection, edited by Jo Glanville of the Jewish Quarterly, aims to shed light on the debate by bringing together a range of Jewish contributors. Mikolaj Grynberg describes how in Poland state laws criminalising the discussion of Polish complicity in the Holocaust have reinforced a hostile popular fascination with Jews. Glanville herself writes on the myth of child sacrifice, arguing that it continues to inform more widespread discourses of Jewish conspiracy and cruelty. A broad-brush piece by Philip Spencer manages to write as badly about the Labour Party as it is possible to do: by simultaneously arguing that all Corbyn supporters were racist (all? Even those of us who repeatedly challenged anti-Jewish racism?), and by refusing to cite any actual instances of antisemitic speech with the result that no one reading his piece would think – that happened, that’s very bad, it needs to stop now. Jill Jacobs addresses the familiar reality that Donald Trump both supported Israeli and encouraged racism against Jews. Tom Segev writes about the use of the Holocaust within Israel, criticising Netanyahu but doing so with extreme caution.

The three most interesting chapters, it seemed to me, were those written by Dan Trilling on the right in Britain, Natasha Lehrer on the crisis in France, Olga Grjasnowa on Germany.

Trilling in a short, well-argued contribution, insists that antisemitism operates to the “fasces” (the fascist symbol of authority, a bunch of sticks held together), like the leather strap, the “binding agent” which ties together what would otherwise be a disparate and incompatible set of ideas, its rejection of both capitalism and communism. Open antisemitism may have diminished to some extent on the right, but it is replaced a by a conspiracism within which old Nazi slogans (such as “cultural Marxism”) are easily revived.

France meanwhile is the clearest case for those who want to argue that antisemitism is emerging at all points on the political spectrum, and that the equation “anti-Jewish racism is a far-right phenomenon” is hopelessly glib. Lehrer describes the mobbing of the Jewish controversialist Alain Finkielraut, by a crowd of Gilets Jaunes supporters chanting, “Filthy Zionist bastard”, “France belongs to us,” and “We are the people.”

The politics of this scene are complex: the GJs were a broad, populist, movement with roots in both the French left and right. Most people I know, I guess, would have blamed this scene on neo-Nazi infiltrators within that group. Yet, while undoubtedly the GJs were subject to such raiding, I doubt most French Jews read the situation like that. For the message the French media gives is that Israel protects French Jews, and that story is amplified both by Finkiekraut himself and by the largest far-right party the Front National. If the French press was to be believed, and some people do believe it, the further right you go in politics the more pro-Jewish people are.

Or think of some of the other examples cited by Lehrer: Jewish schoolchildren shot in Toulouse in 2012, the murders at the Hypercacher supermarket in 2015, the killing of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in 2018. (These three attacks were antisemitic and none can plausibly be blamed on the right). French Jews, Lehrer writes, constitute less than 1 percent of the population, and suffer more than 50 percent of racist attacks. This racism comes, Lehrer argues, predominantly from black people and Muslims.

It is extraordinary to go from Lehrer’s account of France to Olga Grjasnowa’s Germany. There, she argues, Jews are taught to live in fear of racism, which they are told is solely and uniquely the preserve of outsiders – the same blacks and Muslims. But look at the figures for antisemitic hate crimes recorded in 2019: 1,898 including 62 acts of violence were carried out supporters of the far right; 24 (3 of them violent) by Muslim antisemites. The press, she argues, has invested huge time and energy in persuading Jewish people to fear the wrong people, not the far right who are a real threat but Muslims, who in most of Europe aren’t any threat at all.

Several of the pieces in this book are interesting; for people unfamiliar with the widespread sense of anxiety among Jewish Europeans, this is a good place to understand it. Reading this collection as a whole, the question is really whether it coheres. The individual contributions have the feel of voices taking past one another. It is as if the editor had hosted an academic event, allowed each contributor to speak for 40 minutes each, but insisted on strict rules that none of the participants were permitted to comment on each other’s paper.

What might Natasha Lehrer say to Olga Grjasnowa, or Grjasnowa to Lehrer, if each was told to hash out their discussion over beigels? I like to think that quite quickly, they might have got beyond the point of each telling the other, “I’m sorry, you’ve just completely misunderstood what’s going on”. It is exactly that missing discussion between participants that would have been most interesting.

2 responses »

  1. Disappointed you include an Amazon link for the book. I mean, people kinda know it exists if they want to order the book, there’s no need to promote them.

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