The danger of “tropes”

Michael Che, 'Saturday Night Live', 20 February 2021

JVL Introduction

In a insightful article in Vashti, Em Cohen explores the danger of “tropeification”.

That is, 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, constitutes antisemitism.

It doesn’t. This is a topsy-turvy way of going about things: 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.

Rather, its oversimplification makes understanding antisemitism difficult and dismantling it impossible.

Thanks to Vashti where this article first appeared.

This article was originally published by Vashti on Wed 24 Mar 2021. Read the original here.

Antisemitism isn’t a set of tropes – and thinking about it that way helps nobody

The outrage over Michael Che’s SNL joke is everything that’s wrong with our fight against antisemitism.

This incident typifies something I like to call the “tropeification” of antisemitism. Rather than thoughtfully considering whether a statement really evinces hatred of Jews or upholds oppressive systems that harm Jews, a tropeified understanding of antisemitism compares suspect statements to the catalogue of established tropes: blood libel, dual loyalty, world domination. According to this logic, if a statement appears similar to one of these tropes, it constitutes antisemitism – regardless of context, regardless of truth. It assumes that antisemitism is inherent to tropes, rather than expressed by them.

Yet similarities between a statement and a trope are not always meaningful or intentional. The similarities between Che’s joke and the trope that Jews spread disease are merely coincidental and do not evince the hatred of Jews. [For those who don’t recall it, this was the joke: “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population, and I’m gonna guess it’s the Jewish half,” Che said late Saturday night during “Weekend Update,” the satirical broadcast news segment on “SNL” he hosts alongside Colin Jost. – JVL ed]  Instead, Che’s joke touches on the real pain that Palestinians are experiencing as the settler-colonial Israeli government dictates their access to the vaccine during a deadly global pandemic. Eschewing empathy, the condemnations of Che’s joke overlooked that pain, acting as if alleged antisemitism invalidated the experiences of others.

This formulaic understanding of antisemitism is most routinely used to neutralise criticism of Israel. In debates, it emboldens Zionists to scan anti-Zionists’ arguments for tropes then, by alleging antisemitism, to shift the conversation from their arguments – in this case, Israel’s refusal to vaccinate Palestinians – to their alleged animus toward Jews. This happened to Rashida Tlaib in November, when the Palestinian-American congresswoman tweeted apprehensively about Biden’s plan to appoint Tony Blinken – a Jewish, pro-Israel politician – as secretary of state. Disregarding her valid concerns (Blinken has since gone on to oppose the International Criminal Court’s investigation of Israeli war crimes), many claimed Tlaib was parroting the antisemitic trope of dual loyalty by implying that Blinken might be supportive of Israel because he is Jewish. The conversation quickly shifted from one about Blinken’s support for Israel to one about Rashida Tlaib’s alleged antisemitism.

This deflection has been made even easier by Zionists’ conflation of Zionism with Judaism, and the consequent extension of the tropified understanding of antisemitism to statements about Israel and Zionism that do not even mention Jews. In this view, criticising the settler-colonial violence of the IDF is considered blood libellous; Palestinians honestly describing their lived experience is treated as antisemitic.

One of the clearest examples of the tropeification of antisemitism being used to suppress opposition to Israel is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism. Despite widespread criticism, including from the definition’s author, the IHRA definition has been endorsed by 29 countries and recently received support from President Biden. The definition itself is comically vague: the statement “Jews make good food” technically meets it. More relevant to this essay, however, are its accompanying 11 “contemporary examples of antisemitism”.

Seven of the 11 examples are explicitly related to expression about Israel. One is “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Another example prohibits drawing comparisons between the Nazis and contemporary Israeli policy – a prohibition that relies on the idea that Israel is synonymous with Jews, and that prevents Palestinians from highlighting the commonalities between their experiences during the ongoing Nakba and the experiences of those targeted during the Holocaust.

The functioning of the examples within the IHRA definition mirrors the functioning of tropes within the contemporary tropeified understanding of antisemitism. With the main definition so abstract and obtuse, the attendant examples appear all the clearer and more precise. While ostensibly intended to “serve as illustrations,” applied “taking into account the overall context” of a situation, the examples have more commonly served as an extension and even replacement of the definition. The AMCHA Initiative, a Zionist organisation dedicated to stifling Palestinian organising on campus, exemplifies this dynamic: their own definition of antisemitism overlooks the uselessly vague main definition, instead copy-and-pasting from the examples.

Even when mobilised in good faith, efforts to “combat antisemitism” that centre on tropes are necessarily ineffective. At best, they can materialise as reactive campaigns which condemn an unceasing supply of statements, for their apparent similarities to a trope, and ask for apologies. In reality though, tropeification manifests as a political bludgeon applied on a case-by-case basis, when its usage might be politically convenient.

When Ted Cruz tweeted that Jewish presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg “owned the media”, Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL condemned the tweet as perpetuating a harmful antisemitic trope. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) disagreed. Casting aside the tropeified understanding of antisemitism they would pick up to denounce Che’s joke, the ZOA released a statement defending Cruz’s tweet and claiming that the ADL was smearing a “friend of israel” as antisemitic.

The ADL has attempted similar mental gymnastics. When Trump invoked numerous antisemitic tropes about money, influence, and dual loyalty to a crowd of Jewish republicans, Greenblatt defended his comments, stating: “context is everything”. Unsurprisingly, Zionist organisations are more lenient about the use of antisemitic tropes in the mouth of a Zionist. While it is clear that many only employ tropeification when it’s politically convenient, the answer is not to condemn tropes more consistently.

The tropeification of antisemitism does not protect Jews. Its oversimplification makes understanding antisemitism difficult and dismantling it impossible. It produces one-dimensional conversations that centre Jewish comfort and leave no room for the experiences of others. It obscures not only the colonial systems that produce antisemitism, but also the power dynamics at play where it is alleged. It enables Jewish leaders to compare those fighting for Palestinian liberation to Nazis while excusing the antisemitism of the president. If we sincerely hope to defeat antisemitism, we must abandon tropeification in favour of an understanding of antisemitism that situates it within global colonialism and treats oppressed people with empathy, not suspicion.

Em Cohen writes about Jews, Zionism, philosemitism and antisemitism.

Comments (5)

  • Mike Cushman says:

    The IHRA (mis)definition includes a mild limiting constraint about context which is largely ignored by avid trope hunters who use the examples not as clues but as he basis for a simple matching exercise; replacing ‘might be’ with ‘is’.

    This was taken to a greater intensity by Luke Akehusrt, a star among trope hunters and now a member of Labour’s national executive. He circulated, under the name of Local Government Friends of Israel (what seems to be a one man band but might generously be one man and a dog) a version of the IHRA document which omitted the moderating sentences. This even more dangerous versions was adopted by a number of local authorities by ignorance or malice putting many innocent Council employees at risk of their livelihoods and protecting no Jews.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    Very neat and simple dismantling by Em Cohen of the way antisemitism has largely become about tropes, which inevitably are in the eye of the beholder – or the person who chooses to cry ‘antisemitism’. Even the seemingly most blatant examples might not be what they seem.

    Many years ago, working in a Dublin office of a trade union, I sought to borrow some cash from the office manager. It was the way all of us coped with our remoteness from a bank, short and eccentric banking hours and the fact that a hole in the wall still meant a hole in the wall, while bank cards weren’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye. But that day, I was unlucky, the office manager’s petty cash box was bare – or, as he put it when he apologised for being unable to help, ‘I haven’t any money, I’m like a Jew with short arms’.

    I was horrified, extremely upset, and also astounded: a couple of nights before, I had wrecked the most popular TV programme in Ireland, which EVERYBODY watched – except, clearly, the office manager – by demolishing the evening’s star guest – Oswald Mosley. Which meant that everyone in Ireland – except, I suspected, the office manager – knew I was Jewish.

    Because I knew instinctively that he hadn’t be intending to insult me as a Jew. He hadn’t done it because I was Jewish – as it turned out, he was the one man in Ireland who hadn’t seen that weekend’s edition of The Late Late Show. And when he failed to work out why I blanched, I was pretty sure he simply didn’t have a clue what he had said. For him, just like ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’, it was just words. Words, of course, that were nakedly antisemitic in origin, and equally overtly antisemitic in their content, but words that had lost their meaning and significance over the decades.

    I was so startled and hurt, I couldn’t deal with the situation (Mosley before an audience of millions was a much easier gig), and it was left to an Irish (catholic) colleague to explain to the office manager just what he had done wrong. The office manager was overwhelmed with horror and profusely apologetic. And it was over.

    Did he say something antisemitic? No argument about that. Did he realise the significance of what he was saying? I don’t believe so. Was he targeting me as a Jew? Indisputably not. Did he ever use those words again? I am certain not. What was our subsequent relationship? Just fine. So had he deployed an antisemitic trope? Yes, I reckon he did, and one whose meaning was perfectly plain on the face of it. But equally, if you ask me, was he ‘an antisemite’ because he had used those words? It didn’t – and still doesn’t – feel like that to me.

    Yet people have been disciplined by and suspended from the Labour Party for ‘tropes’ whose ‘meaning’ is buried far more deeply, and is far more open to dispute. Even when it seems ‘obvious’, it might not be.

  • Dave says:

    This is an excellent piece. As we could say, give em enough trope and they’ll hang themselves… Not original I know.

    As Tony Greenstein (and myself and others) keep wearily saying, we know what antisemitism is and someone stumbling into a ‘trope’ doesn’t make you so and we don’t need lengthy definitions with examples.

  • Dave Bradney says:

    Yes, where is the committee that adjudicates on when ordinary forms of words become forbidden and start to carry sanctions? How do its members get elected? I have never voted for anyone to carry out this work on my behalf. Language belongs to us all. People should be free to use ordinary words, and combinations of words, in their ordinary meanings. The world of tropes and memes is an Orwellian nightmare. The use of tropes and memes should be called out at every opportunity.

  • James Dickins says:

    “Mike Cushman. 3rd April 2021 at 16:15. The IHRA (mis)definition includes a mild limiting constraint about context”
    _________________________________________

    Even more bizarre, however, the IHRA definition does not give any information about what the context(s) is/are or is/are not which would make something antisemitic or not antisemitic. So the phrase in the IHRA “depending on context” is completely meaningless.

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