The Last Word: The Banality of Antisemitism
Jun 28, 2017 | Jeremy Jones
At an international conference at which I had met a number of people who had never previously knowingly met a Jewish person, a conversation with an Australian diplomat turned to the subject of anti-Jewish stereotypes and bigotry.
The diplomat had witnessed the civil, seemingly genuine, discussions I was having with many delegates, on Judaism and contemporary concerns of world Jewry.
He told me of the interesting contrast he observed between my interactions and what he had heard, often and in different countries and social environments, said about Jews and the place of Jews in world affairs.
Even the “educated elites”, the “suave, sophisticated and liberal minded” set in a variety of countries, not only spoke of Jews as non-human but almost super-human, apart from the rest of humanity but somehow in control of an array of levers of power.
If a person gained notoriety and political prominence, the assumption of “Jewish until proven innocent” passed as the standard explanation for unanticipated success.
So I asked him, “What response do you receive when you challenge antisemitic assumptions” and, “How do you effectively break down stereotypes?”
His answer? A wry smile and a knowing laugh, indicating that he appreciated my joke – obviously a diplomat would not be so undiplomatic as to challenge culturally acceptable racist slurs.
When I raised this with a (Jewish) United States government official who had specific responsibilities to document and combat racist bigotry, I was regaled with anecdote after anecdote concerning open, overt antisemitism treated as acceptable, even admirable discourse.
When those making antisemitic comments were challenged, I was told, they were, more often than not, surprised to learn that not everyone automatically agreed with them.
They had never before been confronted with facts, alternative information or deconstructions of their presumptions – and when they were, some would dig in their heels but others would begin the long journey to rationality.
In segments of our society, also, antisemitism had and has been a given, an unchallenged assumption, a normal pattern of behaviour.
For so much of history, Jews have had no opportunity to question, let alone challenge, and ultimately correct, harmful, false assumptions about Judaism and the concerns and behaviour of Jewish individuals and communities.
In many cases, members of the “in group” first needed to recognise there was a problem and commence the process of finding a remedy.
Prior to, and during, the recent UK election campaign, there was a renewed focus on antisemitism promoted by sections of, and tolerated by many more inside, the political Left.
It seemed that the more one encountered the support base of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the more likely one was to find a person whose open support for anti-Jewish groups and tolerance of anti-Jewish bigotry had been a hallmark of their public life.
Self-declared progressives were enthusiastically embracing clerical fascists, with whom all they had in common appeared to be a hatred for Israel which included elements of, if not overt, antisemitism.
Some of them were fully aware that their behaviour was intellectually dishonest, politically cynical and morally indefensible, but they also saw that they escaped any consequences and feel themselves to be ascendent in the once venerable Labour Party.
Others were more willing to consider, and even reconsider, their positions, once they were exposed to counter views.
But often the reality was that even good, decent, anti-racist people fear the consequences of confronting anti-Jewish racism – socially within broad sections of “progressive” culture, politically within party branches and unions.
Of course, this is not restricted to the UK, nor to the political Left. I know of individuals in Australia who have challenged anti-Jewish slurs and slanders within a number of religious, ethnic and cultural groupings, and have suffered harassment, ostracism and even assault.
If nothing else is learned from the UK election, it is that far too many people are accepting of antisemitism as normal. This is a problem not just for Jews but for the well-being of society.