How Not to Fight Antisemitism

JVL Introduction

In “How Not to Fight Antisemitismthe staff of Jewish Currents reflect on the tendency  to see antisemitism where perhaps it isn’t to be found.

Generally supportive of the grouping Jews Against White Nationalism and its website, this roundtable discussion produced what they call a “Responsa”, expressing concerns at some of the things identified unproblematically as antisemitic – and the danger of exaggerating the danger.

Here Richard Kuper writes in a personal capacity about of some of its concerns.

Richard Kuper writes

Jewish Currents’ arguments come from a Jewish movement growing in self-confidence in the US, and perhaps therefore able to look reality in the face openly and not defensively. It will be interesting to see if its approach is simply called out here in Britain, in a knee-jerk reaction, as a denial of antisemitism.

It is not.

It is trying to explore the parameters of what is, and what is not, antisemitism in order better to combat the real thing. Hopefully it will be welcomed as part of a legitimate debate about antisemitism – of the kind the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism wishes to encourage.

Time will tell.


How Not to Fight Antisemitism is a very useful complement to the argument developed by Em Cohen on Vashti, The danger of “tropes”, reproduced recently by JVL.

In that article a number of points are made:

  • When certain phrases are identified, in advance, as antisemitic, thinking goes out the window, and anything that uses one of these phrases, or even triggers off a possible link to one of them, is seen as antisemitic. The article argues that this is simply not the case: similarities between a statement and a trope are not always meaningful or intentional.
  • Indeed as Cohen shows, “formulaic understanding of antisemitism is most routinely used to neutralise criticism of Israel” (as in the IHRA definition of antisemitism and elsewhere).
  • Furthermore, tropeification of antisemitism does not protect Jews. Its oversimplification has the reverse effect: it makes understanding antisemitism difficult and dismantling it impossible.

The Jewish Currents “Responsa” covers similar ground. It starts by looking at a tweet last December by Republican Governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, during that state’s senatorial runoff election, that reads: “California and New York liberals are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Georgia in an attempt to buy our state for Chuck Schumer. We must defend Georgia to save America.”

Is this tweet “laden with antisemitic tropes” as has been alleged? Jewish Currents questions this view, saying that while “ the images referenced here—the Jew as powerful figure in the shadows, as cash-wielding influencer, as coastal elite—are staples of the antisemitic lexicon” surely that is not enough to make this statement antisemitic?

As they point out that “liberals, including those from the coasts, were pouring money into the Georgia races to win control of Congress for the Democrats, led in the Senate by card-carrying New York liberal Chuck Schumer. For better or worse, Kemp’s tweet is simply true.”

They point out too, that we do not live in medieval Europe or Nazi Germany. The language bequeathed to us from aggressions then does not have the resonances it had at those times and we should beware of projecting on to it meanings it does not – or at least might well not – have. Believing it must have these antisemitic implications leads to dubious and incoherent claims from all sides. They give examples:

  • A Forward article accuses Andrew Yang’s campaign manager of invoking an antisemitic trope, revealed several paragraphs down to consist simply of the appearance of the word “money” in a tweet about Israel/Palestine;
  • A Jewish communal leader’s Twitter joke about Stephen Miller’s Covid-19 diagnosis, saying the virus had “jumped species,” is likened to Nazi propaganda linking Jews to lizard;
  • In other animal news, it turns out the labour icon Scabby the Rat is antisemitic if deployed against an abusive (Jewish) boss;
  • So is the epithet “piggy” when applied to a (Jewish) pro-police university president;
  • so is the act of comparing Israeli snipers who gunned down unarmed Palestinian protesters to “birds of prey“;
  • Is an image of an octopus in a (later deleted) Democratic Socialists of America tweet about landlords an antisemitic canard, or just an apt visual metaphor for pervasive, structural greed?
  • Is Ilhan Omar’s tweet including the phrase “SHUT IT DOWN” a reference to an obscure neo-Nazi meme about Jewish power, or just a commonplace protest chant?

It is easy, they say, to mirror the way in which our opponents weaponise antisemitism – and we have done so all too easily, and gratifyingly against the right, in the Trump era.

While some may regard every “trope as a track laid on the way to an American Auschwitz” there is a real danger of doing this:

“In effect, these past few years have only intensified the feeling among Jewish liberals that they are besieged from all sides, regardless of the level of actual threat.”

“This Holocaust-centric lens has trained many Americans, not all of them Jewish, to view Jews as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, and treatment of Jews as a barometer for a society’s treatment of minorities more broadly. This symbolic role magnifies the significance of violence against Jews, even when it is rare, while downplaying widespread and outrageous forms of repression and dispossession of others.”

It needs to be pointed out that, while waiting for American Jews to show canary-like signs of stress, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and others are under sustained, daily racialised attack in the States and elsewhere. And police violence is not the least of it: as Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito wrote in 2019, “Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States. Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police.”

Our very own beloved antisemitism Tsar, John Mann, labours under the same illusion saying, for example, in July 2019: “The Jewish community is the canary in the coal mine for humanity and for the safety and future of my grandchildren.” And while he can smell out a perceived antisemitism in any and every recess of the Labour left, he seems unable to notice the real anti-Black racism that pervades the Labour party and the generalised Islamophobia in British political and social life. Or the anti-Gypsy racism he has himself bought into.

[“Antisemitism Tsar”, by the way, is a bizarre term apparently deployed with pride. It was or course precisely  under the czars, particularly in C19th and early C20th, that Russian antisemitism peaked, driving a huge exodus of Jews particularly to the promised land of America.]

The Jewish Currents Responsa concludes:

“In attempting to reclaim the mainstream narrative of antisemitism—concerned with the immutable, transhistorical figure of the Jew-as-sufferer—we have lost sight of our actual, and varied, material conditions. There are innumerable paths into the urgent work to be done, work that is perhaps enriched by a collective memory of oppression, but that must not rest upon it. As we exit the Trump era, following a summer of Black-led uprising, we find ourselves called more urgently out of the cocoon of Jewish organizing and into broader coalition politics. This must be the occasion to enter a second wave of Jewish left praxis, one that faces our partners and not our own navels.”

You can read the full discussion here.


Comments (7)

  • I find Richard Kuper’s piece very clear and rather easier to to follow than the original.

  • John Bowley says:

    To hypocritical former Labour MP John Mann: get real about real racism!

  • Nick Jenkins says:

    Remember when Jeremy Corbyn was critical of bankers and that was, apparently, clear evidence of his antisemitism? Because, of course, all bankers are Jews and all Jews are bankers.
    The sort of bizarre thinking that homes in on so-called “tropes”, yet actually promotes antisemitism.

  • Ian Kemp says:

    john Mann or lord whatever that means is a particularly nasty individual
    I had a brief confrontation with him on the internet a year or two back. His attitude was I am right and you are wrong when I tried to correct some of his views on A/S. He came across as a person not subject to reason. He had very fixed views and he was right, Quite a nasty person to say the least.

  • Yes indeed. There is a whole industry at work here So references to transporting Israel to the United States in Naz Shah’s famous tweet (borrowed from others) became transport to Auschwitz.

    This nonsense is the first IHRA example of antisemitism:
    ‘Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.’

    So accusing settlers/the Israeli army of poisoning Palestinian wells is a repetition of the medieval libel about Jewish well poisoners. The problem is that the accusation against Israeli settlers is true.

    The nettle needs to be grasped. Israel is not a Jew. Jewish settlers do what they do because they are settlers, not because they are Jews. Even if the allegation against Israel is false, procuring eg body parts from dead Palestinians, it is not antiSemitic. It is simply wrong. Not everything that is wrong is anti-Semitic.

    The tropification of antisemitism has but one purpose. To clamp down on free speech against Israel. It has nothing to do with antisemitism

  • Alan Stanton says:

    Thanks JVL for continuing to publish the helpful and usually insightful views of Tony Greenstein. And also for having a word limit that encourages him to be short and punchier.

    I should of course mention first hearing about Mr Greenstein via the denunciations of right-wing bigots who joined my local Labour Party. They attacked a lot of people who I’d never heard of and I’m very grateful to them for vastly extending the range of my reading and learning.

  • Doug says:

    The mistake is to think you win when you win the argument
    Whats the 3 word response that can be repeated ad nauseum to cut through the AS Scam

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