Against Jewish Exceptionalism

JVL Introduction

This talk by Nira Yuval-Davis was presented to a Social Scientists Against the Hostile Environment webinar ‘Imposing racialised state discourses: Racism in Britain today’ with Malcolm Richards, Nira Yuval-Davis and Colin Prescod.

In it she argues strongly that treating anti-Jewish racism as exceptional works to the detriment of solidarity between Jews and other racialised groups.

It has been lightly revised and edited for this print version while retaining its form as a spoken text.

The IHRA definition of antisemitism and discussions about race in Britain

I’m very pleased to be here with you today and to contribute to this important discussion on the ways the contemporary Tory government is promoting particular ways of talking about racism and how it should be fought. Of course this is not something which was started by this government but certain issues and controversies have been sharpened under it.

In my presentation I’m going to focus on some of the issues relating to antisemitism – or rather, as I prefer to call it, anti-Jewish racism. What I’m mostly going to focus on is the issue of Jewish exceptionalism which already is reflected in this different name antisemitism which is being used to describe this form of racism and which acts, I would argue, to the detriment of solidarity between Jews and other racialised groups.

One of the most controversial recent acts of exceptionalism has been enacted by the Minister of Education, Gavin Williamson when he wrote to the VCs of all British universities demanding – with a threat of sanctions – that they adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

There are many issues to be concerned about regarding this act of Williamson’s, including the issue of freedom of speech that the new head of the EHRC, Baroness Falkner has pointed out, as well as claiming that it is ‘extremely poorly worded and probably unactionable in law’. I’ll come back to some aspects of that definition later in my presentation. A comprehensive and excellent critique of Williamson’s letter and the definition can be found in a collective letter from more than  170 Israeli academics teaching in Britain and elsewhere (I can say it’s excellent because although I was part of the group that initiated it I was not one of those who actually wrote it. See the letter and a Times Higher op ed based on it here.)

Most relevant to my point here, however, is that Williamson did not demand that universities adopt a single definition of any other form of racism, only this one regarding Jews. This act of exceptionalism, in addition to everything else, constructs an artificial division between racism against Jews and racism against other racialised groups.

There are other examples of Jewish exceptionalism here in the UK.

For instance, Holocaust Memorial Day. Don’t get me wrong – most of my extended family members were murdered by the Nazis and the emotional and intellectual impact of this has played a major part in my becoming an antiracist activist. Moreover, as a teacher of the Sociology of Racism, I’ve always insisted on teaching racism more broadly – against Jews, Roma  the Irish, refugees as well as Blacks as was the custom then in Sociology curricula, and the introduction of teaching about the Holocaust in schools in the 1990s has had an important positive effect on ingrained anti-Jewish stereotyping I’d encountered until then among my students. However, introducing a Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK – as Max Silverman and I wrote in an article at the time that was rejected by the Guardian (and even when it was published in the journal Ethnicities, Tariq Modood, the editor, agreed to published it only as a debate with Robert Wistrich)* – when there have been no other memorial days to other acts of genocide and racism in Britain, has been problematic in several important ways.  I’ll mention two here.

First, again, is the issue of Jewish exceptionalism. While I know that many antiracist activists, Jewish and non-Jewish, are expanding the range of genocides and other crimes against humanity which are memorialised on those days, the fact that it was called the Holocaust Memorial Day and not Genocide Memorial Day, for instance, retains the Holocaust, ahistorically, as the archetypical case of genocide that all other cases would have forever to be measured against. Moreover, as the UK was never occupied by the Nazis, it is easy for it to focus on the Nazi Holocaust and draw attention away from some of the horrendous things that took place during the British Empire – the Black Lives Matter movement has finally managed to start making an impact in this regard.

A very different act of Jewish exceptionalism is the fact that the Chief Rabbi, ex officio, has a place in the House of Lords – the only non-Christian religious leader who has such a place. Never mind that the Chief Rabbi represents only one stream among several different streams of Jewish worship, let alone all those Jews who are not religious, and that it reinforces the problematic definition of Jewishness only as a religion…

This relates to another case of Jewish exceptionalism which has been important currently, during the pandemic. In the UK census Jewishness appears only as a religion, not as an ethnicity. I usually have to tick the category ‘Chinese and other’ when asked for my ethnic origin. There have been lots of publications about the disproportionate vulnerability to the COVID virus among what they call the BAME communities. However, the reports about the extremely high occurrence of Covid among ultra-orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill, for instance, cannot be incorporated into those statistics. This has an impact on how these issues are being understood.

There are many forms of racism. Any signifier of difference, from physical features to ways of life, can be used to create immutable boundaries which can lead to either – or indeed often both – of the logics of racism: that of exclusion, the ultimate form of which is genocide, and that of exploitation, the ultimate form of which is slavery.

In Britain today, as we discuss in the introductory part of SSAHE’s report ‘Migration, racism and the hostile environment’, three narratives about race dominate:

  • those stemming from European cultural history – both religious and scientific (eugenicist)
  • imperial – those stemming from British colonial and slavery history; and
  • nativist – relating to anti-immigration populist movements which want to keep Britain only for those ‘who belong’.

Different specific forms of racist discourse – anti-Black, anti-Roma, anti-Muslim etc – draw, in different ways and to different extents in different historical times on one or other of these traditions. Like anti-black racism, analysis of antisemitism shows it to be rooted in both religious and scientific traditions in Europe and it has also been part of the European narrative of collective belonging. But while anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racisms have tended to focus on these groups as ‘dangers from without’, the Jews were seen as ‘the danger from within’.

However, at particular historical moments, anti-Jewish racism has drawn on nativist narratives of belonging as well as on the first two, as in the ‘anti-alien’ social movements of the early 20th century and in the pressure for Jews to assimilate. Antisemitism is particularly identified with a conspiratorial worldview, and with the falsely personalised embodiment of capitalist power.

Of course, all these constructions of antisemitism and other forms of racism homogenize all the members of each racialised group. Anti-racist campaigners must bring attention to the many ways in which people from the same racialised groups are exploited or excluded in different ways even in the same historical moments and locations.

This brings me back to the IHRA definition of antisemitism which the British education minister has been trying to impose. This definition legitimises Jewish exceptionalism in a different way – a way, which I would argue is ultimately very dangerous to Jews – especially certain kind of Jews who do not conform to the Jewish mainstream. I need only mention in this context that many, if not the majority, of Labour party members who are currently suspended from the party because of accusations of antisemitism are themselves Jews. The Labour party has unfortunately adopted the IHRA definition and the current leadership of the Labour party is using it in its struggle against Labour’s Corbynite Left. .

The IHRA definition, which has been described by those who composed it as only a ‘working definition’, relies mostly on illustrative examples and quite a few of these relate to criticism of Israel. Indeed, in addition to the major forms of antisemitism I mentioned before, in the 21st century there is a growing hegemony of what many call ‘the new antisemitism’ which maintains that criticism of Israel and/or Zionism is antisemitic. This stems from the assumption that Israel represents the collective identity of all Jews and therefore it hurts and threatens all Jews when Israel is accused of being, for example, a racist endeavour or an apartheid state. I don’t have time here to expand on this – many, me included, have written critically on this issue. Here I just want to comment on two aspects of this development.

First, like the other forms of Jewish exceptionalism I described above, it makes the issue of solidarity between Jews and other racialised minorities much more difficult, as most local and global antiracist movements are in solidarity with the Palestinians, who have suffered from many forms of both exclusion and exploitation since the beginning of the Zionist settlement in Palestine at the end of the 19th century.

Second, the Chief Rabbi or the Board of Deputies of British Jews, are constructed as representative of all British Jews. There are significant – and growing – numbers of self-identified Jews who do not see themselves as supporters of Zionism and Israel, and especially of its occupation policies.  These Jews do not feel represented by the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which makes assumptions about how they see their ethnicity, in which ways they identify as Jewish and what their values are. When people opposed apartheid South Africa they were not automatically seen as racist towards White South Africans. When the SNP calls for the dismantling of the UK, people might disagree with it politically but do not see the party as racist towards the English.

All this means that in developing an effective antiracist movement that includes Jews as well as all other racialised groups in Britain and elsewhere, we need to be careful about treating Jews as exceptional. We need to be careful about lumping people together in different racialised groups and assuming they all think and feel and experience belonging in the same way; we must, rather, create solidarities across borders and boundaries, and resist attempts to impose uncritical antiracist, as well as racist, narratives and structures.

Thank you.


* Yuval-Davis, N. and Silverman, M., 2002. Memorializing the holocaust in Britain. Ethnicities, 2(1), pp.107-123.

Comments (15)

  • DJ says:

    An interesting article. The truth of the matter is you can’t claim to be anti racist and a supporter of the Israeli settler colonial regime. The anti Palestinian IHRA definition of antisemitism is divisive because its adoption amounts to saying that it is only possible to oppose one form of racism by legitimising another form of racism. This results in the demonisation of the oppressed Palestinians by Israeli Jews. It’s as if the system of Jewish supremacy over the Palestinians must be maintained because they are all antisemitic. We end up with a desperate situation of “it’s either us or them”.

  • David Hawkins says:

    This is an important article and I almost entirely agree with it.
    But I have one problem.
    “In the UK census Jewishness appears only as a religion, not as an ethnicity.”
    If you visit Israel you will see Black African Jews, Arab Jews, Europeans indistinguishable from non Jewish Europeans and even Jews with blond hair and blue eyes.
    As Professor Shlomo Sand points out there is no evidence at all of a mass exodus of Jews after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple. And as Professor Sand also writes, such a mass exodus would have been an extremely unusual event in the Roman Empire.
    So what is the justification for describing Jews living in Britain as “an ethnicity”. What is the ethnic difference to British Gentiles ?
    From an ethnic point, Palestinians almost certainly have a stronger ethnic connection to first century Middle Eastern Jews than do British Jews.

  • Peter Jones says:

    Excellent, excellent, excellent. Such a precise mind. I live in envy of those who can analyse, write and speak with such focus and precision, while all around there are those who seek only obfuscation. Thank you.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    I don’t think Jews were described in Britain as an ethnic group till the introduction of legislation against race discrimination. It was clearly intended that Jews be covered by this legislation, but how to do it was the issue. No government was willing to legislate against religious discrimination in mainland Britain till the 21st century (while N Ireland had a law prohibiting religious discrimination from the 70s, but no law against race discrimination for several decades). In any event, anti Jewish racism was rarely concerned with Jewish religious practice – it was Jewish identity and membership of a group that was at issue. So when the race relations legislation was drafted, the definition of ‘race’ included ‘ethnic origin’. As Jews clearly didn’t fit under any of the other components of ‘race’ listed in the Race Relations Act (e.g. colour, nationality – it really was a mishmash), Jews were shoehorned into ‘ethnic origin’ (as were Sikhs, who also definitely needed protecting – I don’t think issues around Muslims were anywhere on the horizon at the time). So whoever and whatever you consider British Jews to be, we have become ‘an ethnic group’ for legal purposes.

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    I would like to add to this excellent exposition an anecdote.
    My CLP’s all-member meeting that followed the Pittsburg shootings opened with a short and moving statement by the Chair expressing horror and solidarity. Within months there was another CLP meeting following the Christchurch massacre. No statement.
    When, under AOB, I pointed out the implications of the difference between the two reactions, asking how a Muslim member attending both meetings would have felt, I was accused of insulting fellow members by saying they were racists. I can assure you I did not say that: I simply pointed out how European-centric their world view was and what consequences that skewed vision has.

  • I too have problems with the concept of a Jewish ethnicity. In what way are Jews an ethnic group? Wikipedia defines ethnicity as:

    ‘a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups such as a common set of traditions, ancestry, language, history, society, culture, nation, religion, or social treatment within their residing area.'[1][2][3]

    In what way are Jews an ethnicity? We do not have a common language, ancestry, history etc. Jews are a religious and political minority. For many Jews, Zionists, Israel constitutes their Jewish identity, arguably the last Jewish identity. There are certainly common myths but I would argue no common ancestry, culture or traditions.

    For many of us our anti-Zionism constitutes our Jewish identity. It is forced on us by the claim of Israel to represent us. So in the census I shall put down White British, because that is the ethnicity of most Jewish people in Britain today.

  • Margaret West says:

    Jewish Race/Ethnicity seems a minefield ..
    (However I’m sure I will be corrected on what follows as much is pedantry and/or anecdotal.)

    First – “semites” according to the Old Testament are peoples descending from “Shem” and then Abraham
    surely – which includes both Jews and Arabs – ?

    Second – as an earlier poster pointed out – the Romans did not expel all Jews – for apart from anything else they needed the farmers! I believe also there have been surveys of the DNA of Israeli citizens which indicate their mixed race.

    As for the House of Lords – here is the Wicki of the
    “Lords Spiritual”
    It is very lengthy and readers would be advised to
    skip the first thousand years !

  • George Peel says:

    Does anyone have any knowledge of this? Out of the blue, it was the lead story on ITV Granada News, in the North West, last night. Shocking and troubling, if true, especially after the showing of, the superb, ‘The Windermere Boys’, on television, last year.

  • rc says:

    NY-D has given us a fine piece of thought; I would however stress the other side of the coin: the (mainly) Anglo-American exceptionalism whereby those two establishments proudly vaunt their virtue signalling by deploring a series of events for which they had little DIRECT responsibility, even in the disgraceful events around the Evian Conference and the voyage of the St Louis – which enabled Hitler to crow that he was leading a reluctant and hypocritical world in ‘solving the Jewish problem’. British wartime Home Secretary Herbert Morrison opposed the opening of the UK to Romanian and other Jewish refugees because it would encourage the others. Do the ‘Holocaust days’ mention such longlasting British (and American) complicity in the mass murders conducted by the Third Reich?

  • J Bingham says:

    Jewish ethnicity?. Please help me here. I only know one Jew, or as he calls himself “a half Jew”. He explained to me that it is all about genetics. If both parents ar Jewish you are a Jew no matter what your religious convictions. If only one parent is Jewish (preferably the mother) you are a half Jew. His son by a gentile is one quarter Jew. Religious belief has really nothing to do with it. Converts to Judaism, he claims, are looked apon as being nice to have but not “real” Jews.

  • Martin Read says:

    Thank you. A very clear argument, entirely too well explained for inclusion in the pages of the Guardian.

  • David Hawkins says:

    Naomi Wayne, for me the problem is this. Jews have undoubtedly been subject to the most appalling racism over the ages culminating in the Nazis Holocaust. All victims of racism should clearly be afforded legal protection.
    However the fact that you are a victim of racism does not prove you are a member of a distinct race. In my view European Jews are indistinguishable from other Europeans apart from their religious and cultural legacy.
    So to claim that all Jews, worldwide, constitute an ethnicity actually gives credibility to the opinion of racists, something we would never want to do.

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    I’m not sure I agree with Tony regarding ethnicity. I would be happier with the definition he quotes if the words “they perceive as” were placed before the word “shared” in the first line. Myth-making is a key part of any ethnicity.
    I don’t think he intends this, but it would be easy to draw the (false) conclusion from the concern with ethnicity that if there were an agreed Jewish ethnicity, then Jews could be considered a nation and as such (another false conclusion) have a territorial claim.

  • John Spencer says:

    Mirvis hasn’t made it to the House of Lords yet — but it won’t come as a surprise when he does.

  • steve mitchell says:

    I commented here before that what the Labour Party was doing was a threat to to Jews. Insisting on Jewish exceptionalism is meat and drink to the Extreme Right who are ascendant in the UK. They will point to the power of the Jewish lobby and antisemitism will rise as we are seeing in Cumbria.

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