A friend asked me recently whether I’d considered writing a blog about the rising incidence of anti-Semitism within the Labour Pary and within Britain as a whole.
My response, quite honestly, was no. It was, and still is, a topic about which I am extremely wary, and at the time I simply explained that I didn’t feel I, as a non-practising Catholic of British / South African heritage, was in any way qualified to comment on. Particularly given there are a number of highly respected Jewish journalists who have already written, and continue to write, far more powerful pieces than I could ever hope to write on this topic.
But the other reason for my wariness, which I didn’t mention at the time, was because I have found myself on two separate occasions, on social media, accused of anti-semitism for failing to recognise particular “anti-Semitic tropes” of which I had previously been unaware.
The first involved a cartoon depicting George Soros as a puppeteer, pulling the strings of Tony Blair. I don’t recall the particular context in which the cartoon was circulated – it was certainly something Brexit-related – but I was fascinated that many journalists that I follow and whose opinions I often respect, were immediately condemning it as anti-semitic. In my usual bull-in-a-china-shop manner, I responded to one of the condemnatory tweets, expressing my bafflement at a criticism of George Soros being automatically labelled anti-semitic based purely, as far as I could see, on the fact that Soros is Jewish. Why, I asked, should Soros be immune from any criticism over undue influence he may wield over politicians? The answer, confusingly, was that the puppeteer is a familiar anti-semitic trope that not only was used extensively by the Nazis, but which even to this day is typically only ever used in relation to Jewish people. Criticise Soros by all means, I was told, but don’t show him as a puppeteer.
Now, firstly, I will confess to my own ignorance – I was not previously aware, at all, of the puppeteer trope. But a brief Google search did bring up plenty of Nazi and other more recent clearly anti-semitic propaganda material depicting Jewish puppeteers pulling the strings of society. So I could, now, partially understand the reaction.
But I still took exception to my interlocutor’s insistence that it’s only ever Jews who are depicted as puppeteers. Nonsense, I responded, attaching a few cartoon images and memes of Donald Trump portrayed as the puppet either of Vladimir Putin or Steve Bannon. Why is it okay to depict Steve Bannon or Vladimir Putin as puppeteers, but not George Soros? I received no answer – whether because I had raised a killer point, or whether my interlocutor had chosen to give up and dismiss me as a rampant anti-semite, I will never know.
The second incident involved a couple of EU-loving Remain activists photographed at a pro-EU rally, each wearing a single gold star labelled “French”. “Dreadful anti-semitism!” roared many of the Brexiteers that I follow on Twitter. And once again I was utterly baffled as to how this display of love for the EU, and love for their country, from two French citizens, could possibly be perceived as anti-semitic.
Never one to blindly follow my own tribe, I waded in to the argument expressing my incredulity at what I saw as a blatant attempt to use the smear of anti-semitism to discredit a differing viewpoint. It appeared clear to me that the stars these two were wearing – being 5-pointed stars of the same shape as those on the EU flag – were meant to symbolise exactly those stars. They were not 6-pointed Stars of David, and in no way symbolic of the Jewish faith.
Nonsense, I was told. Regardless of shape and number of points, a single yellow star attached to an item of clothing is an anti-semitic trope. Particularly given the word “French” was written on the star – clearly meant to invoke memories of the holocaust, in which Jewish people were required to attach a yellow Star of David, labelled “Jew” to their clothing.
Now, once again, I have to confess my ignorance. I remember learning about the holocaust and I remember learning about how Jews were forced to register as Jewish, and how the homes of Jewish people were painted with the word “Jew”, but I don’t recall the specificity of Jewish people being expected to wear a Star of David labelled “Jew” on their clothing. But even having Googled it, and found many articles and images confirming what I was being told, I still couldn’t let go of the difference between the six-pointed Star of David and the five-pointed stars this couple were wearing. To me they are as far apart in shape as a pentagon and a square – the geometric part of my mind saw them as simply not comparable.
But the more I insisted on this point, the more I alienated other participants in the conversation. For refusing to accept the parallel between the stars this couple were wearing, and those worn by the Jewish victims of the holocaust, I was labelled a racist, an anti-semite, an appalling excuse for humanity. I even found myself unceremoniously blocked by a couple of people who had been happily following me for months.
And here’s the thing. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the couple were, indeed, trying to draw parallels with the holocaust. Their message was that they, as French citizens, feel as unwelcome in Brexit Britain as the Jews felt in Nazi Germany. Their message was crass, and to the survivors and descendants of survivors of the holocaust, probably deeply offensive in seeking to draw parallels between Brexit and the holocaust.
But that still doesn’t make it anti-semitic. It was not aimed as a criticism of Jews, or Israel. The message was aimed entirely at Brexiteers – those who had voted to take Britain out of the EU and by doing so, deprive French citizens of some of the rights they currently enjoy in the UK. This couple were not criticising Jews -rather they were calling Brexiteers Nazis. Distasteful and juvenile – yes. Anti-semitic – no. But the Brexiteers, clearly offended at being once again compared to Nazis, were trying to spin it as anti-semitism in an effort to flip the balance of censure from themselves to the Remain activists.
Which brings me, finally, to the impetus for this blog. I have found myself, today, fascinated and appalled by the accusations of anti-semitism against Paul Embery, a Fire Brigades Union official, for a tweet which had nothing to do with Jews, Jewishness, or even Israel. The tweet was not directed at, nor about, a Jewish person. Yet still it has been deemed anti-semitic for its use of two words that were apparently used by Stalin, about Jews, 70 years ago and which are therefore, apparently, an anti-semitic trope.
The two words? “Rootless cosmopolitan”. The full tweet (in response to a tweet stating that a nation is not a home):
“A nation is not a home”
I fear this encapsulates the divide in our society – between the rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian middle class (in this case a bloke who used to sing folk songs on the BBC) and a rooted, communitarian, patriotic working class”
Now, once again, I have to confess prior ignorance. I had no idea that the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” was a derogatory Stalinist term for Jews. I will tuck this away in my knowledge bank for future reference.
But given my love of words, and grammar, I am forced to point out that “rootless cosmopolitan” is an adjective (rootless) describing a noun (cosmopolitan). Embery, on the other hand, referred to the “rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian middle class”. Three adjectives describing a completely different noun (middle class). Embery’s tweet is so clearly aimed at highlighting the differences in viewpoint between the middle class and the working class, that it takes a quite extraordinary stretch of will to equate it with the Stalinist “rootless cosmopolitan” trope.
But this is the problem. Where Brexit and Labour / Tory politics are concerned, no stretch of will is too great in the efforts to smear one’s opponents. Embery, as a prominent Labour Brexiteer, will be finding himself in the cross-hairs not just of those who wish to remain in the EU, but also many Tories and Blairite Labour members who see an attack on him as an attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
In the meantime, genuine, blatant anti-semitism continues to manifest itself, not just within the Labour party but within the UK and the wider western world. The Conservative party has recently suspended a councillor for comments on social media agreeing with the notion that anti-semitism is a “false flag, probably masterminded by Mossad”. The Jewish Labour Movement has passed a motion of no-confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership for failure to tackle anti-Semitism allegations. These allegations include failure to expel members for Facebook posts stating “Heil Hitler” and “Jews are the problem”, and failure to expel members for supporting conspiracy theories blaming Israel for 9/11. And social media abounds with tweets blaming “the Jews” for any and all of the failings of modern society.
I still feel completely unqualified to comment in any meaningful capacity on what has led to such an alarming rise in anti-semitism and what needs to be done to tackle it. As my examples above demonstrate, I’m clearly fairly ignorant and still have a great deal to learn about the preponderance of anti-semitic tropes. But I will take my guidance on what is anti-semitic, not from journalists, activists and random angries on Twitter, but from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), whose working definition of anti-Semitism was adopted in a plenary meeting by the 31 countries in the IHRA and which has since been formally adopted by the British government.
The IHRA makes clear that anti-semitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as a hatred towards Jews.” It provides numerous contemporary examples of anti-semitism, which I have listed in full below:
- Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
- 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.
- Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
- Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
- 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.
- Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
It is clear to me from the above that criticism of the power, influence or behaviour of an individual Jewish person (George Soros) does not constitute anti-semitism. Nor does comparing Brexiteers to Nazis constitute anti-semitism. And nor, by any stretch of the imagination, does the use of the words “rootless cosmopolitan” constitute anti-semitism, nor does it automatically evoke comparisons with Stalinist hatred of Jews.
There are more than enough genuine cases of anti-semitism in the UK which clearly do fit the IHRA definition, and clearly do need to be taken extremely seriously. But those who would use false accusations of anti-semitism to smear a political opponent, are no better than those who shout “racist” to shut down conversations they simply don’t want to have, and to drown out arguments to which they simply don’t wish to listen. If it’s crass and disrespectful for pro-EU activists to evoke the holocaust in order to brand Brexiteers as Nazis, surely it’s equally crass and disrespectful for journalists to evoke Stalinist persecution of Jews, in order to discredit a Labour Brexiteer who is attempting to discuss issues of class and community. Surely we can all do better than this?