Tackling antisemitism requires abolishing the political structures that produce it
In biblical Jewish culture, at Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the sins of the community were placed on a goat. This goat, the scapegoat, was then cast out, left to wander in the desert and eventually die of thirst or exhaustion. Through that ritual, the sins of the people would be expunged. This is not done today. Instead, on Yom Kippur we come together as a community and say Al Chet (Our Sins), a collective confession, taking communal responsibility for each of our wrongdoing, and promising to do better next year.
When we talk about antisemitism, we often describe it through biological metaphors. We claim that antisemitism is a cancer than needs to be cut out of our society. We ask that our institutions expunge the poison that is antisemitism. This language feeds the comforting illusion that antisemitism is an external force invading the fundamentally antiracist body. Antisemitism can be solved if only the ‘real’ racists are expelled from political life.
Antisemitism should not be viewed as an internal invading force but instead as a fundamental feature of our society. It is structural. Antisemitism is an integral part of the politics of colonial and post-colonial societies, which are built on the foundation of white supremacy. As April Rosenblum wrote ‘antisemitism is a system of ideas passed through a society’s institutions’. Antisemitism disguises or explains the failures of white supremacy. It plays this role for those on the right, who explain their failures as the result of the machinations of sinister ‘globalists’, or ‘Cultural Marxists’, rather than as a result of a system with unfairness at it heart. For the left, antisemitism distracts from the fundamental and obvious truth that capitalists are responsible for the violence of capitalism and white supremacists are responsible for the violence of white supremacy.
The structural nature of antisemitism poses problems for the ways in which we think about antisemitism. The term ‘antisemite’ denotes two different but inter-related groups:
The first is the ‘real’ racist, an enthusiastic hater of Jews; the white supremacist, neo-Nazi or Rothschild conspiracist. The ways in which we deal with this group is caught up with popular Anglo-American cultural ideas around Nazism, in which Nazis are allegorized as a monstrous evil. Nazis are depicted as zombies in the Call of Duty franchise, they are a creature with a bright red head in the Marvel franchise, they are a semi-immortal dark wizard in Harry Potter, and an army of faceless clones in Star Wars. In each of these they are framed as a monstrous evil, but abstracted from the society or ideology which they draw their ideas from. We expect antisemites to look like these monsters. The use of the figure of the Nazi as an abstract signifier of monstrous evil, means that for many people the only people that will fit the criteria to be a ‘real’ antisemite are those that are so obviously and fantastically monstrous that they would fit these comic book style depictions. Those that can mask their racism are protected.
The second, far larger group of antisemites, are those who subscribe to antisemitic ideas they have adopted from a deeply structurally racist society. According to 2017 research by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, as much as 15% of the population have at least one antisemitic attitude. They are probably more who have these attitudes, but would not admit this to a researcher. This group are often not people ideologically committed to hatred of Jews. They will often claim to be antiracists, or friends of the Jewish community, but still understand the world through antisemitic ideas. This group of structural antisemites scares me more. They have the power to legitimise antisemitic regimes around the world, such as in Hungary, Poland or the US. They have the power to legitimise antisemitic ideas in the UK. They could seriously hamper antiracist responses against antisemitism.
Current popular discourse frames antisemitism as solely monstrous Jew-haters rather than engaging with antisemitism as a widely shared ideology which has a key role in the reproduction of white supremacy. This fundamentally misunderstands the nature of antisemitism. A focus on a small percentage of ‘real’ antisemites, allows those who might have internalised antisemitic views or participate enthusiastically in white supremacist systems for which antisemitism is a key component, to claim to in fact be antiracists, based on tokenistic opposition to ‘the real racists’. In this competing claims that Corbyn is uniquely and violently antisemitic in the Labour Party and that only 0.3% of the Labour Party have been investigated for antisemitism share the same misunderstanding, that antisemitism is a problem of a monstrously evil other, rather than a problem of society. We need an approach to antisemitism that tackles it as a structural problem, rather than a purely individual one.
The first stage to fighting antisemitism is to no longer rely on scapegoats, pretending that a structural racism is only the problem of monstrous ‘real’ antisemites. Antisemitism is not a problem of them but a problem of us. We need to take communal responsibility for our wrongdoings, and work to change our communities so that the political structures that produce antisemitic attitudes are abolished. For political parties, the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on antisemitism and the Labour Party provides some useful first steps in terms of internal structures, but these are not enough.
Part of the answer is antiracist education, to ensure that antisemitism, its role in wider racial structures and its deep and lasting harm are understood. Education has the power to give people different ways of thinking about the world, so that they no longer need to rely on antisemitic ideas to explain the manifold failures of the society around them. It is incumbent on the political left, to devote time and energy to learning about antisemitism, its relationships to other forms of racism and strategies to tackle it. The left should be a place where space is provided for people to unlearn their racisms, which they will have absorbed from a structurally racist society.
Whilst I am deeply appreciative of the power of a good seminar, education own will not necessarily provide the deep social change that’s required. Racism won’t change unless we change the material conditions which produce it. To protect Jews requires tackling structural racism as a whole, including elements of the structure which don’t particularly target us (as Jews), like a carceral justice system or an education system which systematically discriminates against its Black students. It requires rethinking an economic system in which we are ruled by an unaccountable elite of the very wealthy, for whom antisemitism and racism will always be a main part of their thought. Antisemitism will continue to exist as long as the structures that make it a convenient explanation for social failures still exist. In the words of James Baldwin: ‘We can’t be truly free until all are free.’
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Image credit: Flats! – Creative Commons