Antisemitism is an objective social phenomenon because it does not only reside inside our heads but it also in the cultural spaces in between our heads and in the relationships between consciousness, culture and material reality.
Antisemitism has recognisable shapes and tropes; it has been with us for a long time and its symbols and memes are deep within us and deep within our shared cultures. So there is no contradiction when Jenny Tonge tells us that she is unaware of feeling any hostility to Jews even as she indulges in classic antisemitic conspiracy theory; or when Flynn alleges that a Jew cannot be trusted to hold a sensitive office for the British state, while at the same time he believes that he does not contain an atom of antisemitism.
Sometimes it is said that hostility to Israel is a cloak which hides antisemitism. But this seems to suggest that people who are self consciously antisemitic are adopting hostility to Israel as a way of camouflaging their real, underlying, Jew-hating motivations. Well, this may be true of [the English author and Holocaust denier] David Irving, for example, whose antisemitism precedes his ‘criticism of Israel’. But it is more of a puzzle when people who are aware of no antisemitic motivations, who think of themselves as implacable opponents of antisemitism, act in antisemitic ways.
Whether the hostility to Israel comes first and the antisemitism follows, or whether the antisemitism comes first, causing the hostility to Israel, it is difficult to know. Perhaps it makes sense to understand it as a cycle in which both antisemitism and hostility to Israel feed on each other. But in any case, the key issue here is that the antisemitism remains steadfastly unrecognised and unacknowledged by the person who has stumbled into it. This is important if we are to understand the self-righteous anger and the certainty with which such people reject any suggestion that what they have said or done is antisemitic. The indignation is genuine.
People look within themselves and find an absence of Jew-hatred. They find it difficult to understand antisemitism as an objective social fact, preferring to see it is an individual mental sentiment. Having found themselves not guilty of antisemitism, they are tempted to move quickly on to angrily counter-attacking the motives of the people who have brought up the issue.
The 1980s consciousness raisers normalized racism, understanding it as something which is common in our world and which even happens within ourselves. This way of thinking helped them to examine racism, to understand it and to oppose it. By contrast, contemporary antisemitism is often treated in the opposite way. A colleague from the Netherlands once told me that she had been invited to participate in a panel discussion in Amsterdam about a controversial play. I asked her whether she thought that the play was antisemitic. She replied:
How can I accuse somebody of antisemitism in Holland, in the city of Anne Frank, which was occupied by the Nazis?
I thought this answer revealed something important about the difficulty of discussing and understanding contemporary antisemitism. She told me that she thought the play was vulgar, was not a good play, was not nuanced, did not portray Jews fairly or sensitively; but she was hugely reluctant, for reasons which had nothing to do with the play itself, even to consider whether it was antisemitic. For my colleague, the very concept of antisemitism had become unusable in any context other than that of the Nazi genocide of its pre-history. In her mind, to say that this play was antisemitic was to say that the author was like Hitler; and since this playwright was not, in any sense a Nazi, then it would have been insulting to call her play antisemitic. In this way, we deprive ourselves of the ability to interrogate our own speech or actions for antisemitism.
We need the concept ‘antisemitism’ to help us to understand and to oppose the phenomenon of antisemitism. But what if the term itself, and so the concept, has become unusable? What if it has become a nuclear bomb which cannot be targeted against anti-Jewish bigotry but which, instead, obliterates the whole conversation. For my Dutch colleague, it had become impossible to confront the author of the play and its audience with a reasoned and evidenced case that they had slipped into antisemitic ways of thinking. Her choice was either to dance around the issue of antisemitism using other words or to use the dreaded word, in the fear that the response of the playwright would be howling and self-righteous anger, rather than considered and sober introspection.
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