For the first time in my life, I’m frightened to be Jewish

The mural commemorating the battle of Cable Street. Photo: jo-marshall (was Jo-h)

JVL Introduction

In a world where racism is being normalised David Graeber, Prof of Anthropology at LSE, is very worried about being Jewish.

In a passionate essay, he explains what is particularly upsetting him: the weaponisation of antisemitism accusations against the current Labour leadership, a campaign sustained primarily by people who are not themselves Jewish.

It is, argues Graeber, exploiting “Jewish issues in ways guaranteed to create rancour, panic, and resentment”… “so cynical and irresponsible that I genuinely believe it to be a form of antisemitism in itself. And it is a clear and present danger to Jewish people.”

Thanks to David Graeber for permission to repost.

This article was originally published by openDemocracy on Fri 6 Sep 2019. Read the original here.

For the first time in my life, I'm frightened to be Jewish

And non-Jews attacking the Labour party aren’t helping

I am 58 years old, and for the first time in my life, I am frightened to be Jewish.

We live in a time when racism is being normalized, when Nazis parade in the streets in Europe and America; Jew baiters like Hungary’s Orban are treated as respectable players on the international scene, “white nationalist” propagandist Steve Bannon can openly coordinate scare-mongering tactics with Boris Johnson in London at the same time as in Pittsburg, murderers deluded by white nationalist propaganda are literally mowing Jews down with automatic weapons. How is it, then, that our political class has come to a consensus that the greatest threat to Britain’s Jewish community is a lifelong anti-racist accused of not being assiduous enough in disciplining party members who make offensive comments on the internet?

For almost all my Jewish friends, this is what is currently creating the greatest and most immediate sense of trepidation, even more than the actual Nazis: the apparently endless campaign by politicians like Margaret Hodge, Wes Streeting, and Tom Watson to weaponize antisemitism accusations against the current leadership of the Labour party. It is a campaign – which however it started, has been sustained primarily by people who are not themselves Jewish – so cynical and irresponsible that I genuinely believe it to be a form of antisemitism in itself. And it is a clear and present danger to Jewish people.

To any of these politicians who may be reading this, I am begging you: if you really do care about Jews, please, stop this.

One might ask how this happened? Here I feel I must tell a somewhat brutal truth. Orginally this scandal has very little to do with antisemitism. It is in its origins a crisis of democratization in the Labour Party.

Let me hasten to emphasize: this is not because bigoted attitudes towards Jews do not exist in the Labour Party. Far from. But Antisemitism can be found on almost every level of British society. As a transplanted New Yorker, I’m often startled by what can pass in casual conversation (from “of course he’s cheap, he’s Jewish” to “Hitler should have killed them all.”). Surveys show that antisemitic attitudes are more common among supporters of the ruling Conservative party than Labour supporters. But the latter are in no sense immune.

What makes Labour unique however is that for four years now, Jeremy Corbyn and his allies have been spearheading an effort to democratize the internal workings of the party. It has inspired hundreds of thousands of new members to join, and turned once rubber-stamp branches into lively forums for public debate. Momentum, a mass action group, has been created to try to turn the party back into a mass movement, which it has not really been since the 1930s. All this has been anathema to a large number of MPs on the party’s right, who, having been placed in their positions under Tony Blair as effective MPs-for-life, are by now so out of step with their Constituency Labour Parties that they would almost certainly lose their seats if anything like an American-style primary system were put in place. And many Corbyn supporters have been campaigning for exactly that.

Still, a politician can’t very well say they’re against democratization. So over the past four years, they’ve tried throwing practically everything else they can think to throw at Corbyn and his supporters. Tolerance of antisemitism was the first to really stick. The reason is that any process of democratization, opening the floor to everyone, will necessarily mean a lot of angry people with no training are going to be placed in front of microphones. (This is the reason why few parallel scandals come out of the Tory side, despite the wider prevalence of antisemitism—not to mention other forms of racism and class hostility — no one without media training gets anywhere near a microphone. When the Tories briefly flirted with the idea of creating their own Momentum-style youth group, the project had to be quickly abandoned because participants began to call for the poor to be exterminated.) In a society as rife with anti-Jewish attitudes as Britain, opening the floor to everyone means some are, inevitably, going to say outrageous things. As I can well attest, this can be startling and appalling, but if one is actually interested in purging antisemitic views from society, one is also aware it’s not ultimately a bad thing. It’s only by bringing forms of unrecognized racism out in the open that they can be challenged and minds changed. There is evidence that in the first two years under Corbyn (20152017), this is exactly what was starting to happen: the prevalence of antisemitic attitudes among Labour supporters were sharply declining.

Still, superficially, this democratizing process does result, initially, in more antisemitic comments being made in public, which is precisely what made Corbyn and his followers vulnerable. By all indications, the right wing of the party made a conscious choice to turn this process for their own advantage. In a way it was a political masterstroke. If one accuses one’s opponents of promulgating antisemitism, almost any reply they make can itself be treated as antisemitic. It’s no surprise that some Jews, both right-leaning elements in the Jewish community, and Labour supporters, who began looking nervously over their shoulders, have allowed themselves to be drawn into what can only be described now as a tragic spiral. The process is designed to feed on itself. Still, it’s important to note that most of the protagonists were not Jewish and many if not most had never before taken any particular interest in Jewish issues. By all appearances, it was pure, cynical, political calculation. But it worked.

The problem is that exploiting Jewish issues in ways guaranteed to create rancor, panic, and resentment is itself a form of antisemitism. (This is true whether or not the architects are fully aware of what they’re doing.) It creates terror in the Jewish community. It deprives us of our strongest allies. If one were actively trying to create ill-feeling towards Jewish people on the left, then surely purges, sensationalized denunciations in the media, wild exaggerations, and the endless twisting around of words (a skilled propagandist can after all prove anything – if I wanted to cherry-pick quotes, I’m sure I could demonstrate that Margaret Thatcher was a Communist or the Pope is anti-Catholic), would be the best way to go about it.

One could argue that none of this matters too much, since, as far as dangers to the Jewish community is concerned, internal left politics will always be a bit of a sideshow. In a sense this is true. There is no conceivable scenario in which admirers of the ideas of Rosa Luxemberg or Leon Trotsky are going to start shooting up synagogues, or Momentum (an organization three of whose four co-founders were Jewish) is going to make anyone wear yellow stars. That’s what Nazis do. And Nazis are on the rise. But in another way, this makes the damage even more pernicious. As the racist right gains power and legitimacy across Europe, the very last thing we need is to leave the public with the impression the Jewish community are a bunch of hypersensitive alarmists who start screaming about Auschwitz the moment they disagree with the exact wording of policy statement. It’s crazy to cry wolf while real wolves are baying at the door. It’s even crazier when those you’re crying wolf about are the very people most likely to defend you against them. Because anyone who knows Jewish history also knows this is how it begins. And history from Cable Street to Charlottesville teaches us when the brownshirts do hit the streets, police tend to prove useless or worse, and it’s precisely the “hard left” that is willing to stand by us. If that day comes, I know that Jewish left intellectuals such as myself are likely to be first on their list, but I also know that Corbyn and his supporters will be the first to place their bodies on the line to defend me. Will Tom Watson, the current purger-in-chief of purported antisemites in the Labour party, be there with them? Why do I doubt this?

Such scenarios might seem an impossible fantasy, but so, not so long ago, was a President Trump.

All I can do is plead to anyone involved in promulgating this campaign, in politics and media: please, stop. My safety is not your political chess piece. If you actually want to help, you could work with the party leadership, instead of using it as yet another way to seize power that you’ve repeatedly failed to win by legitimate, electoral means: If you’re not capable of actual constructive behaviour, then at the very least, stop making things worse. Because what you are doing in the name of “protecting” me is driving us all to disaster. And for the first time in my life, I am genuinely afraid.

David Graeber is a Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and is also involved in social and political activism. His books include Debt: the First 5000 Years and Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire.

Comments (11)

  • Richard Hayward says:

    This piece really hits home at the central danger of the ‘antisemitism’ scam.

    “so cynical and irresponsible that I genuinely believe it to be a form of antisemitism in itself.”

    Precisely – its manipulation of the facts is entirely cynical and dangerous, in terms of its alignment of the (supposed) leadership of the ‘Jewish community’ with reactionary politics.

    As many before have said – for decades whether a member of the Labour Party was an irrelevance, and the majority of us have not seen any evidence of antisemitism in our lengthy experience.

    Now, manipulated by cynical anti-Corbynism backed by the Israel lobby, there is a fictional distinction made between Jewish and other members of a Party deceptively called ‘institutionally racist’.

    Dangerous indeed.

  • Leah Levane says:

    Excellent reminder of what’s been happening over the past four years and the importance of this being understood. The current febrile atmosphere and the worsening situation we are entering makes the need to recognise this even more crucial.

  • Alasdair MacVarish says:

    Add John Mann, Tom Watson and Ian Austin to the list of Labour MPs stirring up false charges of anti-Semitism in Labour Party.

  • Dr ALAN MADDISON says:

    Excellent read and so relevant today.

    I would add that the dangers associated with the political antisemitism smear extend to all other ethnic minorities. The distraction from the largely far right perpetrators of hate crime assaults puts them all at increased risk.

    One recent survey shows that compared with Jews, communities of immigrants, Gypsy/Travellers and Muslims have up to 5 times the risk for future violent hate crimes post brexit.

    The Conservative Party has done much to incite racial intolerance yet are spared scrutiny, almost all media attention is directed at the political campaign of alleged antisemitism in Labour.

    So this article will be very welcome for all those who are genuinely concerned about the security and well-being of minorities, including all Jews of course.

  • Philip Ward says:

    While this essay makes some powerful points about the campaign against “anti-Semitism” in the labour party and its role is fostering real anti-Semitism and fear amongst Jews – and it is good to have David Graeber’s support against the witch hunters – it actually misses the point. The main losers in this campaign will be the Palestinian people, who could eventually be deprived of any active support or even advocacy in Europe and North America if it achieves its objectives. Only by ignoring this aspect of the campaign could fail to see that the main forces behind the campaign are in fact Jewish. There is ample evidence that the Israeli ministry of strategic affairs, the establishment Jewish organisations in the west and their Zionist supporters initiated this whole thing. David Graeber also does not mention the fact that the majority of the “instances of anti-Semitism” in the LP cited by the media have been nothing of the sort, just trenchant opposition to Israel and its policies, while some others seem to be trolls in social media posing as LP members in order to discredit it. Yet others are misguided people who muddle up their opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinians with generalisations about Jews. This group, probably politically naive, is the one that could grow in number as a result of this Zionist witch-hunt and is an illustration of why it is so dangerous, a fact David Graeber helpfully emphasises. Lastly, a tual Jew-hating anti-Semites in the labour party are likely to be very few in number and probably non-existent in its far left, as David points out.

  • SteveK says:

    Brilliant piece of writing. As the politics swing to the right and antisemitism gathers pace under Trump, Netanyahu, and Johnson the jewish community has more to fear from them and their followers than they do from the left.
    Scapegoating is a route to fascism, and fascism feeds on racist views – throughout history these have fostered anti-semitism.

  • Chris Wallis says:

    The failure of the BBC and other MSM to do due diligence on the accusations and allow Watson, Hodge and co to make their accusations unchallenged, and allow the Board Of Deputies similar Lea way whilst granting them prime news airtime has been a major contributory factor,

  • John says:

    People like Netanyahu want people like David Graeberto be frightened.
    It is part and parcel of a policy of encouraging aliyah to Israel.
    After the Paris murders, Netanyahu flew over to appeal to French Jews to migrate out of France and into Israel.
    Netanyahu is not alone in pursuing such a policy, which is designed to boost the numbers of Israelis so that the numbers of boots on the ground can be deployed to boost the numbers residing in illegal settlements.
    As we know, true Christian zionists heavily support this policy too.
    Like Balfour before them, they are the real Judeophobes, who want to cleanse their lands of Jewish blood.
    Today’s Tories – with their deliberate “hostile environment” – are also engaged in a post-Brexit feeding frenzy, in which anyone not like them is to be “encouraged” to move somewhere else in the world.
    Watching the current BBC series “Rise of the Nazis” shows just how easy it is for a fringe party headed by a charismatic leader to end up becoming the most powerful person in the country by sheer accident.
    Is it speculative to imagine a general election outcome in which a possible Leader of the Brexit Party becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom?
    David Graeber has every right to feel frightened.
    And so do all the rest of us.
    PS: Philip Ward is right: this phoney alt-right campaign is obscuring the concerns many of us have for the poor Palestinian people too.

  • Mark Francis says:

    I noticed in the Campaign Against Anti Semitism demo in Parliament Square there seemed to be a lot of people dressed as Orthodox Jews. Since the CAA seems to represent secular Jews and certainly Haredi Jews are anti-Zionist & often Labour supporters, were these people just dressing up? Is this not a gross example of literal cultural appropriation & thus a new anti- Semitic trope as well?

    • Mike Cushman says:


      I think it is highly unlikely that people were ‘dressing up’ and it is quite wrong to leap to this conclusion. Some Haredi Jews are strong supporters of Corbyn, others are much less favourably inclined. No community is homogenous in its outlook and indeed there are different communities of Haredim with widely differing outlooks, not all of which are anti-Zionist. It is also, of course, possible to be anti-Zionist and desperately concerned about antisemitism. Almost all Jews are concerned about antisemitism, where we differ is where we see the threat coming from and whether criticism of Israel is driven by antisemitism. So it is quite possible to be anti-Zionist and also believe, although quite wrongly in our opinion, that the Labour Party is a major repository of antisemitism.

  • John Lipetz says:

    An interesting article. I must say I’m not frightened to be Jewish, particularly as a member of the Labour party. Antisemitism is a very minor issue in the party. Two of the main influences on creating this image for the Labour party are (1) the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and the leadership together with (2) the pro-zionist elements among Jews, including the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement, who regard criticism of the Government of Israel and support for Palestinians as antisemitic.

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