Antisemitism and other forms of intersectional racialisation during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic

In this blog, Nira Yuval-Davis and Miriam David, two feminist social scientists, address the question of antisemitism as intersectionally embedded in other forms of racisms. Intersectional analysis examines the ways different social divisions constitute and shape each other in specific historical, locational and personal contexts.

The authors draw on an important recent analysis of migration, racism and the hostile environment, to show how antisemitism might better be understood generally as part of wider intersectional forms of racialisation, in which  gender, class and other social divisions play crucial roles. This is now the case in the particularly stark context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The policies and practices in the UK throw a spotlight on intersectional inequalities and intensify the impact, given the dichotomies created between those who must STAY HOME and those essential workers in care, domestic, health and other services who are not allowed/unable to stay at home

As the SSAHE report Migration, Racism and the Hostile Environment  points out, in the post-war period, several major discourses of racism operated which are linked to British imperial, European and nativist constructions in different ways. By ‘nativist’ we mean those ideas or theories that prioritise the interests of native-born or established inhabitants of a particular country over migrants. For example, in Britain from the 1870s onwards, the term ‘alien’ was used in legislation to denote foreigners or migrants. Anti-black racism is rooted in both Christian and scientific traditions, the former emphasizing blackness as a sign of lack of moral worth and the latter supposed biological difference and hierarchy; it took its modern form in an age of colonialism and slavery. It has been found that the Eugenic imagination, ascribing genetic inferiority to those defined as phenotypically black, continued to live on despite its widespread discrediting among mainstream scientists from the 1930s onwards. Marxist (including black Marxist) social science theory has emphasised the importance of exploitation (rather than exclusion) in the black racialised experience and quantitative studies today show the persistence of the sharp socio-economic inequalities British black people face. Although there are no adequate demographic or statistical analyses of the BAME death cases under the Covid-19 pandemic, all indications show that this trend continues today in the UK.

Initially The Guardian demanded further statistics. On April 23rd, they demonstrated more clearly the extent of the difference between BAME and the white populations.

Of course, this is not just due to the kind of jobs BAME people, especially women, do as essential care, domestic and health workers, but also to their poverty, crowded living conditions and their distrust of governmental, welfare and scientific authorities which have not helped them well in the past.

The other paradigmatic form of racialisation, emphasised in the immediate post-Holocaust period but receiving little attention from either race relations or anti-racist scholarship until recently, is antisemitism. Like anti-black racism, analysis of antisemitic discourses shows that it is rooted in both religious and scientific traditions in Europe and has been constitutive of the European narrative of collective belonging. At key historic moments, it has drawn on nativist narratives of belonging, as in the ‘anti-alien’ (alien being the British official term for foreigners) social movements of the early 20th century and in the question of assimilation. Antisemitism is particularly identified with a conspiratorial worldview, and Marxist accounts of it posit that antisemitism sees the figure of the Jew as the falsely personalised embodiment of the abstract dimensions of capitalist power, especially through banking or forms of oligarchy. It is alive and well. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we have witnessed social media using traditional antisemitic blood conspiracy theories, such as blaming George Soros for the virus. Another example, at the so-called street or community level, is disdain for social distancing and criticism of this policy and the virus itself as being a hoax by Jews, and especially the Rothschild bankers (personal commentary to Miriam David from a non-Jewish neighbour).

In recent years anti-Muslim racism has received increasing attention, with some scholars seeing it as a reprise of the ‘old’ antisemitism, although historical research suggests that anti-Muslim racism has been central to the Christian European narrative of belonging since the Crusades. In the context of the global ‘War on Terror’ since the 9/11 Twin Towers attack of 2001, Muslims have become the embodiment of the global ‘Other’, shaped by new forms of nationalism and being rendered as a ‘suspect community’. Studies on anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish racialisations have shown a complex relationship, with the former often emphasising an external Other (the figures of the barbarian or fanatic – now the terrorist), the latter emphasising a hidden Other within. This study also found that the idea of a ‘Judeo-Christian’ Europe has been used by some parts of the Right to allow Jews conditional space in the European narrative of belonging, an example of the complexity of contemporary racialisations.

If anti-black racism has been found to resonate primarily with imperial narratives of belonging, and anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish racism with European narratives of belonging, nativist narratives of belonging have been found to focus on the figure of the migrant. However, as social scientists have pointed out, ‘anti-alienism’ emerged in the early 20th century initially against Jews, and the cultural racism of the mid-20th century was targeted at New Commonwealth and Pakistan citizens. During the Brexit debate ‘White’ Eastern and Central European migrants have been targeted, and other European racialised others, the Roma have become an exemplary form of the figure of the migrant central to nationalist and nativist narratives of belonging and claims of ‘taking back control’. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has shown British dependency on migrants from Europe and other Commonwealth countries for sustaining the care, health and other essential services, two weeks into the lockdown the Home Office published its guidance for its post-Brexit immigration rules aimed at preventing low paid workers –  the key workers on which health and care services are dependant – from working in the UK.

Overall,  intersectional inequalities in the UK  have been exacerbated by the policy of segregation, namely of British (and other countries’) populations into those who are not allowed to leave home (STAY HOME) and those who are not allowed to stay home, not only because they fulfil essential medical, social and economic roles, but because many of them would not have any money to live on if they stopped working . In addition to unequal class and racialised effects, the lockdown has also had a major gendered effect, such as a sharp rise in domestic violence, as can be expected when nuclear family members are locked down together.

When analysing racisms in general, and particularly during the age of this Covid-19 pandemic, it is vital to analyse it in with the lens of intersectionality, being sensitive to the different narratives of racialisation which inspire different kind of hate crimes as well as different kinds of government policies internal, local, national and international or global. Antisemitism should be analysed in this context; it needs to be seen as embedded in, and related to, a complex and intersectional history of racialisations. Only then can strategies to combat antisemitism be contextualised as part of broad political strategies to combat racisms and sexism.

Migration, Racism and the Hostile Environment
See also Wemyss & Yuval-Davis, Bordering under the corona virus pandemic



Comments (1)

  • JanP says:

    A good summary. Yes, anti semitism is part of a wider racism, whipped up by political groups and feeding on native fears. And it is through challenging these it can be tackled.
    Anti semitism has its own flavour with the general public, boosted by vague feelings against the international financial system, as well as support for Palestine. But perhaps it’s more of an issue in the US than Britain?
    Good point about the Roma in Europe. Don’t forget the Gypsies and Travellers in Britain who, as records show, are the most of all discriminated against in terms of health, education, secure homes and employment.

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