Antisemitism is not the only fruit

JVL Introduction

Tony Booth is a Professor of Education and Director of the Index for Inclusion Network. He is an active member of JVL’s Education group.

Here he argues that to understand and reduce antisemitism it has to be linked with other forms of discrimination.

He introduces an approach to education that he calls “values explicit educational development” and explains why putting “inclusive values into action”  involves rejecting approaches to discrimination that prioritise one form of exclusion over others.

This, he argues, is ultimately self-defeating. To combat discrimination against Jews, he says, we have to combat all forms of discrimination.

This is a view endorsed by the JVL Education Group.


Antisemitism is not the only fruit

I find it difficult to make sense of efforts to combat antisemitism without linking it to other forms of discrimination and set out my reasons. I see this as a general argument that holds for addressing any single strand of discrimination.

Aiming for a Party free of discrimination

In JVL we aim to contribute to building a Labour Party free of all forms of discrimination and oppression. We are utterly opposed to antisemitism in all its forms. Where we know that antisemitism is not the most significant area of discrimination within our CLPs and the communities from which they are drawn we embarrass ourselves if we suggest that is the case. In my CLP there is evident sexism – the usual male domination of some meetings and the reports of everyday sexism that are common for women (for example, one councillor is mentioned by other councillors as regularly ignoring and devaluing the views of woman). I have witnessed the expression of disablism on several occasions as well as racism towards people of colour. I encountered particular examples of the use of antisemitic conspiracy applied to the Green Party and of the exaggeration of the power of Israel on the world stage amongst some of those supporting Palestinian rights. In workshops I try to present a rounded picture of my experience.

Respecting the experience of other people

The need to respect the experience of discrimination of others is nowhere more important than when referencing the holocaust to understand Jewish fears of antisemitism. Disabled people, Roma and Sinti people, as well as Slavs, German communists and gay people died in the concentrations camps. We share a common historical nexus with these people. And our concern with the holocaust as part of our history encourages links to be made with the identity-forming horrors of other genocides and mass killings: of indigenous peoples; of Africans in the slave trade; of Armenians; in the mass slaughter of Rwanda; and of women and girls subjected to femicide through selective abortion and targeted killing.

Othering

Whatever else it is – antisemitism is the result of othering and the devaluing of difference. If we do not recognise how and why people notice, emphasise and create difference in others and then see and promote difference as inferiority then we cannot fully grasp the nature of antisemitism and the roots it shares with other forms of discrimination. Othering arises from an abuse of power to create hierarchies of worth but its origins may become buried within culture. In this way extreme forms of discrimination come to be normalised and enter everyday understanding. That’s how Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s biographer, was able to suggest that Winston Churchill showed no antisemitism even though he “shared the low-level casual anti-Semitism of his class and kind” and elevated Jews in his racist hierarchy. It is how routine devaluation of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers avoids being labelled as hate speech.

Primo Levi put well the chilling extension of the process of othering – creating a universal lesson from his own experience of incarceration in Auschwitz:

“Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down, like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about… then at the end of the chain there is the death camp.”

Primo Levi: If this is a man

Monoculture

Othering has a complementary process, in the denial or suppression of diversity through the creation of monocultures designed to generate conformity. Monocultures are generally an illusion maintained by a powerful group who see their subculture as shaping the wider cultural environment. Groups or organisations, which present themselves as monocultural promote exclusion when group rules are breached. In this way they allow the easy identification of those unwilling to obscure their distinctiveness. When we find it difficult to conform to narrow group strictures, when we see them as an affront to our identity, we experience the consequent rejection as discrimination. If we are Jewish we may see it as antisemitism, it may feel to some women as sexism, disabled people as disablism and it may be all of these.

Complex identities

Not only may the same monocultural group simultaneously discriminate against people who are Black, disabled, LGBTQ+ and Jewish those characteristics may form aspects of the identity of a single person. The recognition that efforts against discrimination cannot be kept distinct because identities are complex is sometimes called “intersectionality”, though the impossibility of parcelling out aspects of our identities in unitary campaigns is a matter of experience and logic, which predates this term.

I came to my current position of a concern to develop anti-discriminatory systems settings and cultures from an initial involvement in advocating for the participation in the education mainstream of children with impairments and those “categorised as having special educational needs”. I transformed this for conceptual ethical, political and practical reasons into the task of “creating education systems and schools responsive to the interests of all in their communities. I usually kept to myself that I was at the same time encouraging socialist forms of education and relationships. I framed it as my contribution to the building of comprehensive community education in preschool, school and on to post school.

I call the approach in my work: “values explicit educational development” and have set myself the task of showing what it means to put inclusive values into action in all aspects of education. I contrast inclusive (socialist?) values with excluding (neoliberal?) values. I encourage others to be explicit about the values they wish to see underlying educational action. A major task of education involves linking policies and actions to the values to which one is committed and decoupling them from values one wishes to reject following analysis, heart searching and observation of the actions of oneself and others.

In making my transition from a concern with some to everyone, I was following a journey made by others, for example those moving from a feminism that neglected the struggles of women in poverty to a socialist feminism. The task has not been without its hazards since some people do want to prioritise a focus on disabled students in discussing issues of educational inclusion and they have had considerable success since this is a dominant view judging by Internet searches and my encounters with colleagues in many countries. This prioritises one form of exclusion over others, as is often the case in discussions of antisemitism. But it is also self-defeating. Like Jews, disabled people have multiple identities. In narrowing the recognition of disabled people to their disability a focus on inclusion as a disability issue, ignores other, possibly more powerful forms of exclusion. In treating disabled people as constituted by a disability, they are also dehumanised, treated as having less complex identities than other people. It is a disablist position. So focussing only on the antisemitism experienced by, for example, female or elderly or disabled Jews is an antisemitic position because it portrays us as less than fully human.

I worked on Inclusion and exclusion within education in India. It is not uncommon for a village in rural India to be visited by several NGOs representing different discrimination strands over the course of a year, each setting out to run workshops related to their particular concerns. So one might be concerned with disability, another with empowering women and girls, and a third with reducing caste discrimination. I saw this separation of concerns as resource wasteful and self-defeating since it failed to understand the complexity of discrimination. The approach has not ceased.

Hidden comparisons

Assertions often contain hidden comparisons. So saying there is a problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party begs the questions: “is this more of a problem than other forms of discrimination?”, “is this more of a problem in the Labour Party than other parties” and “is this more of a problem than it was in the past?” This is integral to the way language functions with a background of connotation and hidden reference or “intertextuality”. And as people observe others talking and writing about antisemitism they make these connections too. That is how the constant repetition of the assertion “there is a problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party” leads many to conclude that the answer to all these questions must be in the affirmative and so they come to believe that a third of all Labour Party members have been accused of antisemitism when it is 0.3%. And conversely when they know from their own common experience of everyday racism that this is more frequent than the experience of antisemitism they feel legitimately aggrieved at the lack of attention given to their situation.

Shifting the focus to Roma discrimination

For the last two years I have been supporting a Council of Europe project in Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary which aims to reduce discrimination within education towards Roma across Europe. It raises many of the same dilemmas that are raised in considering the content for our antisemitism workshops. Should we be focussing on Roma discrimination or on creating anti-discriminatory schools? The project arises because of the continuing widespread discrimination towards Roma and the blatant racism that is voiced within communities and to make political capital from it.

In early September 2020 a colleague from the Czech Republic wrote to the team asking to discuss the way discrimination was being ratcheted up at election time. She sent an article about a bus driver who refused to drive a bus with a discriminatory advertisement on it until the advert was removed. The advertisement was for the election of two politicians for a far right party campaigning under the slogan: healthy schools without inclusion. The subtext of the slogan is that inclusion within the Czech Republic is generally taken to mean Roma and non-Roma children sharing schools. So the slogan is a dog whistle – saying the politicians of this far right grouping are on the side of those who hate Roma.

If you haven’t witnessed the open discrimination in parts of the Czech Republic and Hungary then its level may seem barely credible. At the Czech Ministry of Education a few years ago, I asked a senior civil servant why the Ministry did not encourage the ending of segregation in special schools for Roma young people. His response was: “other parents find it very difficult to accept vermin in their schools”.

While the implication in the advertisement of Roma discrimination is clear to everyone in the Czech Republic, the driver also saw the slogan as involving a direct attack on his children and a potential attack on any vulnerable minority.

“It may be all the same to the company what people – children – their vehicles are attacking, but I’m sorry, it’s not all the same to me. That ad might as well read ‘For a Healthy Society Without Jews.’ I do not intend to participate in this, to be part of spitting on the children who are being included, to insult them, especially not my own daughter. I have two children disabled by autism, that slogan greatly offends me.”

And of course Jews and Roma can be categorized as having autism. They may be girls, boys, gay, not gay, gender neutral or gender fluid. They can be dark or light skinned. There are likely to be some Jews who are also Roma. So in order to combat discrimination for all Roma and all Jews we have to combat all forms of discrimination. That is what makes us socialist Jews.

Tony Booth, November 2020

 

Comments (5)

  • Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi says:

    What a thought-provoking piece from Tony Booth. And with considerable practical implications for us in the Labour Party. Tony also contributed much to analysing the worrying inadequacies of the EHRC’s superficial utterances about “antisemitism training.” https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/article/saving-education-from-the-ehrc-report/

  • Dr ALAN MADDISON says:

    A very interesting and convincing article.
    Though the current attack is on Labour antisemitism, we know that discriminations and false stereotypes towards all minority groups are developed in society from childhood.

    There are two issues that concern me most.

    Firstly, that Governments should intervene to educate children, and society in general, on how such prejudices are developed, what we can do to minimise them and their manifestations, and how that would help towards a more harmonious and just society for all?

    Secondly, to tackle how such prejudices are being exploited by politicians and their media. A recent example in the UK is the blaming of EU immigrants for the economic hardships of a selective political Tory austerity. This false belief generated has not only created fear in 3.7 million immigrants, it contributed to a brexit that is expected to worsen those very economic hardships for many more.

    Of course the exaggerations of antisemitism in Labour have helped elect a Tory Govt twice criticised by the UN for policies that discriminate by race and religion.

    It isn’t only “the other” that prejudices harm, and all citizens should be made aware, not just the 1-2% who are party members.

  • Prof. John Wattis says:

    Martin Buber’s concept of ‘I-Thou’ vs ‘I-It’ seems very relevant here. I completely agree that ‘othering’ is at the root of all forms of discrimination.

  • Keith Veness says:

    Very well argued and clarified my thinking on a lot of these very thorny issues,

  • DJ says:

    A good thought provoking article. Solidarity with all oppressed groups is a precondition of uniting the many against the few. The ruling class maintains its power by dividing us.

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