Some weeks ago your correspondent went to South London — having heard there was urban settlement south of the Royal Festival Hall bar — indeed, south of the Coach and Horses, Greek Street — and wanting to check it out. While looking for a performance arts space housed in an old meat-paste factory, I paused at a roundabout, and a bloke pulled up in a car to ask directions. “Sorry, not from ’round here,” I said. He appeared not to believe me. Taking a long look at my baggy eyes, curly black six-day growth, and Middle East middle-age spread, he said dismissively, “Israelite,” in a sarf Lunnun accent, and drove off.
He was non-Anglo, non-specific, he could have been been anyone of a half-dozen nationalities. But following recent outbursts, he’s hardly alone. Charlie Sheen and John Galliano were the latest to join Mel Gibson in resorting to anti-Semitic outbursts. These high-profile reports were accompanied by a bizarre report from Scotland about kids using the term “Jew” and “Jewish” in the same way as the word “gay” was co-opted a few years back — to mean “lame” or worse.
There was a series of press releases from the Iranian government about the Jewish and Zionist cabal of the West in Libya. And even Julian Assange appears to have succumbed to indulging in theories of Jewish networks of media influence.
Whether there is more or less anti-Semitism on the ground than there was, remains to be seen. A recent French report says that violent incidents were down last year, but there certainly feels like it. Get into a minicab, and the Romanian driver looks at you and says (a direct quote): “Are you one of the chosen people? I will tell you the truth about the world if you have the courage to hear it,” before going off on an extended riff about ancient domination, the illuminati, etc, etc.
In a bookshop in a Malaysian-Indonesian area of London, there are copies of Henry Ford’s volume The International Jew among the thrillers. The revival and normalisation seems undeniable. And enigmatic. Among some peoples it is at least explicable, but when the hell did the IDF strafe John Galliano?
The culprits for the rise of anti-Semitism are variously fingered as Israel — for some pretty wanton war-making and civilian decimation; the Western Israel lobby — for insisting that all criticism of the state is anti-Semitism, thus collapsing the boundary; opponents of Israel — for focusing on one military aggressive country among many as a special case, for allowing anti-Zionism to slide into anti-Semitism, or for being critical of Zionism at all; radical Islamism; and South Park.
Radical Islamism is obviously playing a role — in the UK, a recent Panorama program showed that some Muslim schools, established under Labour and Conservative obsession with “faith schools” hosted some pretty disturbing “protocols of Zion”-type preachers — and there’s no doubt that some anti-Zionist protests, especially during the Gaza invasion, attracted some anti-Jewish Arab-based grouplets, and some obsessive whites.
They should have been chased away but no one seemed to be playing a role (that groups such as the SWP used to) of chasing away stray hard-right elements who were wont to turn up to left-wing protests — particularly since the SWP created some very questionable alliances in creating its “RESPECT” group in the mid-2000s.
As to the notion that Israelocentrism is the culprit in the West — well, it takes two to tango. It’s the Israel lobby that has made “loyalty” to Israel a minimum condition of the West, and all falling short or criticism to be indicative of anti-Semitism. The process has served to dilute the charge of anti-Semitism to near-nothingness, and the notion that there’s not an Israel lobby, or that we can speak of it, is too ridiculous to contemplate.
But can we speak of a Jewish lobby? The term is a shorthand, and it oversimplifies the debate and conflict between Western Jews about Israel, the Holocaust, etc — but it would be bizarre not to acknowledge that there are core groups that claim to represent “Jewish” opinion, and invariably argue that Israel represents the West and must be its sole concern in the region, together with a specific approach to the Holocaust (i.e. as unique, incommensurable and to a degree not to be examined, re-interpreted , compared, etc) and, increasingly, an anti-Arabism. It seems reasonable to talk about the US ADF or the Australian Jewish News, as part of the Jewish lobby, indeed to would be a little exceptionalist not to.
The truth is that none of this really explains the insistent and free-floating nature of contemporary anti-Semitism, the manner in which it ceaselessly returns, attached to very little or nothing at all. The fault in part is that it is examined in isolation — indeed, increasingly, any rejection of the notion that it is a distinctive prejudice is itself taken to be anti-Semitic.
For centuries anti-Semitism in Christian countries was more virulent than that in Islamic countries for one obvious reason — the continued existence of Jews was a standing rebuke to the notion of Christ’s divinity, a refusal of consent to a belief that grounded monarchic authority and its culture. Judaism, as an earlier covenant, introduced the possibility of doubt, and was also a mark of origin, a reminder that Christianity wasn’t always there.
It was simultaneously the core of Christianity and a contaminant of it. European anti-Semitism entered a new stage in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain simultaneously drove out the Moors, launched Columbus’s first expedition, and expelled the Spanish Jews. Expulsion, rather than simple separation or disdain, was new. Cleansing the Iberian peninsula of Muslims meant that a more general process was required in search of purity.
Spain was the inevitable site for this anxiety to appear – centuries of reasonably tolerant Muslim rule had produced Marranos and Ladinos and Marrano-Ladinos – people equal parts Christian-Muslim and sometimes Jewish as well. Such communities made a mockery of notions of Christendom and religious authority (which is why Ferdinand and Isabella also established the Spanish Inquisition). Spain unified itself as a nation and established itself as European by that act of expulsion.
That move set the process and the recurrent anxiety that generates anti-Semitism. When nationalism became a major source of identity in the 19th century, and the monocultural nation-state its desired form, anti-Semitism became revived at a new pitch. Since the main challenge to national power was the growing global market and capital, and since Jews were traditionally heavily represented at its heart, personal or national defeat could be attributed to this “corrupting impurity”. The final element was the pseudo-science of eugenics, which made racial differentiation an expression of modernity and science, rather than tradition and ignorance.
The fatal effect of eugenics was to create an acceptable form of mass anti-Semitism. By the 1930s a form of dispassionate, non-vicious, analytical anti-Semitism was general throughout Western society. Indeed some Jews subscribed to it, many of them Zionists (they believed that the lack of land had made Jews a decadent, neurotic urban race). The era echoed 1492 — Jews were a “problem” for Europe, just as Aborigines were a “problem” for Australia, and blacks a “problem” for the US — their continued existence was a standing contradiction of the fantasy of unity on which national identity, and self-identity, was based.
The purported absence of shared “pre-political” forms of connectedness — such as race — meant that there could never be trust , that Jews would always look to themselves, etc, etc. World War II and the Holocaust, and the left-liberal postwar political triumph drove this notion from respectable discourse for more than half a century — when anti-Semitism returned, its manner had changed, and so had the Semites.
Yes, Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism — and, as a group of Australian Jewish activists noted recently, the old anti-Semitism has become revived because Islamophobia made such modes of thinking once again not merely acceptable, but unremarkable, a default setting. Every feature of anti-Semitism — its horror of hybridity, of cosmopolitanism, of difference, its commitment not merely to fear, but to luxuriate in such fear — is an exact reprise of the ’30s.
It even has the grim relentlessness of 1930s anti-Semitism. The Islamophobia that comes from some notable conservative commentator’s blog alone, is on an industrial scale. In decades to come, I suspect, I hope, people will look back on the outpourings of Bolt, Devine, Akerman and others with disgust at their relentless production of suspicion, division, withdrawn trust, and wonder why it was put up with for so long.
Indeed, they will wonder why more people didn’t see the affinities between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, when their common nature was increasingly clear in a man who expresses both, Glenn Beck on Fox News. Whether Beck is serious or joking or both remains to be seen, but he restages every motif of ’30s anti-Semitism, and aims them overwhelmingly at one figure — George Soros, whom he accuses of manipulating all the radical forces of the world, include sections of radical Islam. At 5pm every week night, Beck explains his theories about Soros, who is represented as a giant papier mache marionette, a puppet representation of the “puppet master”. It is unmistakable, and though the “J” word is never used, it feeds directly into the wider anti-Semitism currently unfolding in the West.
There is more to the new anti-Semitism than that, of course. Indeed, one cause of it has been attempts to point out its consequences. The Holocaust has become first an object of sombre reflection in the West, and then one of obsession, increasingly conveyed. In curricula, in commemoration, in public culture, its uniqueness in one dimension, as radical evil, has taken over its meaning and reception. Sucked dry of any content, it is then relayed to children as a focus for universal human guilt about suffering, and the Jewish people as unique victims.
Such a heavy load on the collective conscience combined with the injunction to be free of “PC habits” in talking about Muslims creates the obvious effect — the overwhelming desire, popping up in various places, to tell the Jews to f-ck off. That’s why it so often happens when people are drunk. Why else does a cut ‘n’ paste cartoon figure such as John Galliano batten onto it so easily? He may well have some inherited attitudes (as does Mel Gibson), but is there any real content to their expression? None at all. Galliano and suchlike concentrate in one Cosmopolitan-fuelled hissy fit of vileness both the older anxieties of anti-Semitism — contamination, impurity, identity — and all the modern ones, of rebelling against the symbol of official conscience. The more you lash out, the better you feel.
Increasingly that latter exasperation, with the increasingly rigidified and official role of mourning and suffering, as enforced by the major Jewish lobby groups, comes under attack from Jews themselves. This has been particularly so in TV and comedy, where the whole tradition of self-deprecating Jewish “shlemiel” humour — has become revived.
Shlemiel humour — Henny Youngman’s gag “why do Jewish divorces cost so much? They’re worth it!” probably gets it in embryo — is an old-standard, but it used to be the preserve of comedians who were clearly ethnic Jewish and ruefully mocking their own culture. But when it’s rolled over into a show such as South Park to create a bizarre “ironic” anti-Semitism, which dares you to be shocked, weird things happen. Thus it is that “Jew” has taken over from “gay” as an expression of lameness.
This came to the public attention recently in the UK during protests against university fees, when the accommodating, suited head of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, was heckled and mobbed by protesters, accusing him of selling out. Nothing unusual there, but the fact many were yelling “Jew, Jew, Jew” at him stunned many. Had the BNP infiltrated to attack Porter who on any case is not Jewish? No, it was kids, 16 and 17-year-olds mainly.
They simply used it as a term of abuse for falling short. Some of them didn’t actually know what a “Jew” was. They’d got it from South Park, from Borat, etc, and they rolled it over. A bizarre transformation of a bizarre practice that cannot be uprooted from the West, because it is the root of the West, flowering everywhere, even on a street in south London, provoked by no more than a bad shave.