As an avowedly secular and political Jew, I am easily vexed by dogmatic support of Israel (and on occasion, purely irrational opposition to it) and the all too common inflation of the real threat of anti-Semitism. An episode last week told me as much about the latter, and prompted me to channel my wider frustrations in a format such as this one.
There was a guest speaker from a prominent Jewish youth leadership organisation in Britain, which shall remain nameless, at a lunch hosted by my university’s Jewish society. I thought nothing of it before, merely keen for some food and chat. Welcomed by the speaker with a quick-fire interrogation about my forefathers’ level of Jewish upbringing (with an astonishing lack of sympathy for the realities of ethno-religious life in the Soviet Union), I wondered what was to come next. And after a promotional rundown through the organisation’s educational curricula and trips, we were to begin a discussion: anti-Semitism, the dangers of the quenelle and what can we do to stop it? It was predictable how this would pan out.
I shouldn’t devote too much time to the supposed intellectual rigour of the speaker’s talk. He started off by handing around a fact sheet for the discussion with extracts from the Torah and Anne Frank’s diary, some ‘academic’ excerpts on anti-Semitism, a Wikipedia entry on Sieg Heil and a checklist on ‘what can we do about the Quenelle?’ At no point were we ever told about the French context, about how the quenelle came to be and so on. The essential point was this: we are different, just about all the goyim see us as such and there is nothing we can do about it. When he went on about everyone else having a mind-set and I repeatedly questioned him about what this meant, all he could do was ask why the world bothered to focus so much on rockets sent into Gaza rather than speak of thousands of burning villages in Nigeria. When I asked him how we could move on beyond this ‘mind-set,’ he recounted the wondrous tale of an Afghan he apparently knew who had read Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel and whose anti-Semitism as a result suddenly melted away. No one else in the room stirred. I didn’t bother to probe much further, accepting the futility of my struggle, and not exactly hoping to become a black sheep just yet on my second time at the society.
My point on the quenelle is the following. I am in no doubt as to the anti-Semitism of Dieudonné, certainly embraced by many of his followers; a recent World Service radio documentary confirmed as much to me. I am no less disquieted by the significance of the quenelle than the many others who like me first heard of it after Nicolas Anelka’s goal ‘celebration’ against West Ham. But the documentary also alerted me to the fact that swathes of Dieudonné’s crowd are not fully aware of the dangerous significance of their actions, a point also raised by leading experts on the French right such as Jean-Yves Camus. The original comments of Roger Cukierman, President of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, on the quenelle, while unsuccessfully claimed as a defence by Anelka, are also worth noting for their point on the varying scopes of anti-Semitism when the gesture is performed.
With regards to the wider point of anti-Semitism itself, I sometimes struggle to understand what it really should mean; the term has all too often become a byword for anti-Zionism, opposition to Israel or any behaviour deemed contrary to Jewish interests or values. Organisations or individuals that claim to fight anti-Semitism at times do anything but. Admittedly, I have never directly experienced anti-Semitism; it’s difficult enough guessing I am a Jew based on my outward appearance, name or general demeanour. That is not to say I can be any less sensitive to the merest whiff of a crude stereotype or comment; at the pub I work in I sometimes feign amusement at remarks such as about a broken-down ‘Jewish’ till or ‘Jewish money’ lobbed at Theo Walcott by Tottenham supporters. While I may seethe for a few moments, I know how to contextualise such comments, especially when made by older residents in the East End of London, once the home of British Jewry, and not cry that Jew-haters are in my midst. But I am even more unimpressed when Jews in the West, after querying about family origins in Eastern Europe, seem to frequently stress before me ‘how bad’ or ‘dangerous’ it is in Russia and Poland where my family live, claiming to hold authority on all such matters. As I stress time and again, one should guide themselves above all on the reactions of a local Jewish community, far better-placed to evaluate their supposed hardships; I bring up the recent example of the Panorama’s ‘Stadiums of Hate’ prior to the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine and subsequent reactions of Jew in those countries regarding the documentary’s accuracy. A sense of perspective and on-the ground knowledge are formative; pre-conceived armchair judgements are worthless.
There is no doubt that real anti-Semitism bears certain unique, historic traits unknown to other forms of racism. But to entirely divest an analysis of anti-Semitism from society’s wider ills, as well as other outright forms of racism, or at least elevate it to a platform of its own, does little to remove the problem. If this is really a question of a balance of probabilities, as argued to me, then where is our comparable outcry in France over the continued clearances and segregation of Roma in France, or the rampant xenophobia, in particular Islamophobia, feeding the rise of Marine Le Pen, quite possibly the next French president (and lest certain Jewish authorities quickly forget the track record of her father and predecessor). The political protection afforded to ourselves in the Western world is simply unimaginable for the likes of the former two, to mention a few; where in Europe are anti-Romanyism and Islamophobia given the level of consideration anti-Semitism is? The French government’s crackdown on Dieudonné is a case in point.
Emphasising one’s own suffering and ignoring that of others, often more deserving of our very compassion and consideration, can easily lead to ignorance, insensitivity and even intolerance. Look no further than the separate modern-day founding narratives of the peoples of Israel and Palestine, let alone their present-day respective hardships. Consider our commemoration of the Shoah and its perceived exceptionality, as opposed to similarly genocidal horrors of the war that befell other European minorities. Immersing ourselves in our own injustices, seeing enemies everywhere, failing to evaluate the real-life origins of the hatred in question and hope that the solutions can be found in wider society will not make the problem go away. We cannot continue to wallow in millenary narratives of victimhood and isolate ourselves from the root causes of the hatred in question; we must also see anti-Semitism, there where it is real, as just as worthy of our scrutiny and condemnation as other forms of racism.