The mirage of a “mainstream Jewish community”, often weaponised against the left, hides the fact that “community” itself is always a site of struggle and contestation, Charlie Jarsve argues.
Over the past couple of weeks it seems that the latest controversy over claims of anti-semitism in the Labour Party has wound down. The final chapter in the whole affair was not pretty, with a multitude of non-Jewish MPs taking it upon themselves to police the acceptable limits of Jewishness in an attempt to prove that Jeremy Corbyn had spent Passover with the ‘wrong sort’ of Jews. Increased media attention on the radical Jewish Diasporist group Jewdas seems to have had the opposite effect to what many on the right would have hoped; demonstrating the plurality and diversity of Jewish identity and undermining the claim that the Board of Deputies of British Jews represent the only ‘real’ expression of British Jewishness.
What is remarkable about the attacks on Jewdas is how unquestionably anti-semitic they were, not just because they involved telling Jews how to express their Jewishness, but because they manifested one of the most fundamental characteristics of modern anti-semitism; that is, the fear of Jewishness as something which does not fit, which can’t be easily assimilated into the broader fabric of society. Throughout, commentators euphemistically publicised that Jewdas were not part of the ‘mainstream’ Jewish community, by which they meant those individuals whose relationship with British nationalism and ‘British values’ is the least antagonistic, the most unproblematic.
This has long been the attitude of the British establishment towards its Jewish citizens, and it represents a firm cornerstone of European anti-semitism. In 1920 Winston Churchill wrote an article for the Sunday Herald entitled ‘Zionism versus Bolshevism, a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people’ in which he proclaimed that ‘The conflict between good and evil […] nowhere reaches such an intensity as in the Jewish race’. Churchill argued that the only antidote to what he saw as a pathological tendency towards subversion and conspiracy amongst Jews was a commitment to a nation-building project. Across Europe, since the late nineteenth century, Jews have been scapegoated for a perceived failure to integrate into the nations where they lived, and ‘Jewishness’ has been presented as a constant threat to the security and identity of nationhood. A particularly grim example of this tendency is to be found in the recent election victory of Viktor Orban in Hungary off the back of a campaign targeting the Jewish-American businessman George Soros (who is originally from Hungary) as a shadowy political puppet master, with election posters portraying him as a vampire. Orban also recently passed legislation requiring NGOs to declare themselves as ‘foreign agents’ where they receive funding from abroad.
Shortly after his election victory Orban was congratulated by both Boris Johnson and Benjamin Netanyahu. In this context it is hard not to conclude that loyalty to Israel is the only real issue at stake when those on the right talk up their apparent concern about anti-semitism, and it is of course necessary to point out the hypocrisy of those who defend Israel under the pretext of ‘fighting anti-semitism’ whilst at the same time fostering the growth of anti-semitism elsewhere. However, to stop here, and only highlight the hypocrisy of the right, is correctly seen as evasive when it is not accompanied by a deeper commitment to fighting anti-semitism, and greater introspection and concern from those on the left. To actually fight anti-semitism we need to properly understand what it is and how it manifests; how it differs and how it is related to other forms of racism.
In this regard there is plenty of analysis to draw on. Prominently, writers such as Moishe Postone have argued that the specificity of anti-semitism can be understood in terms of the hostile identification of Jews with the abstract and chaotic nature of capital in its movement across national boundaries. This helps us to explain how much of present day anti-semitism manifests as a crude opposition to ‘globalisation’, which can unfortunately find an audience on the left. Understood this way, anti-semitism is structurally determined by nationalism. The portrayal of Jewishness alongside the abstractions of capital as ‘unnatural’ and rootless creates an ideological logic against which we are supposed to understand nationhood as something ‘natural’ and concrete, accepting a tyrannical logic of borders and state power as the natural consequence of common language and ethnicity. The relationship between anti-semitism and other forms of racism can be clearly seen in the context of state violence, especially with regard to migration, with descriptions of migrants variously as a ‘swarm’ or a contagion clearly feeding off the similar notions of national identity and homogeneity.
In one respect, therefore, Labour can be said to have a quite clear ‘anti-semitism problem’ though it is one which is rarely talked about. The commitment of the Party to a ‘Parliamentary road’ to socialism, and the consequent compromises, with British imperialism and national chauvinism, have always implied racism and nativism. It is not difficult to see how a rhetoric juxtaposing the interests of ‘the many’ and ‘the few’ can take on anti-semitic overtones when the repressive nature of state power and the implicit assumptions of nationhood remain unquestioned; the foundations of bourgeois politics certainly make it far harder to fight anti-semitism. It is also notable that even in the Palestine solidarity movement, anti-semitic theories that emphasise the power and influence of the ‘Zionist lobby’ still rely on a naive faith in the nation and bourgeois democracy, on the assumption that, if it weren’t for the malign influence of a ‘lobby’, ‘our’ governments would never tolerate Israel’s apartheid and colonialism. A proper understanding of imperialism and the sham that is bourgeois democracy cautions us otherwise.
In the latter half of the 20th century in response to decades of grassroots anti-racist struggle, one of the ways in which politicians attempted to address the conflict between the nation and minorities was through a politics of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘tolerance’. Under the banner of ‘multiculturalism’ a nativist and homogenous national identity was (incredibly partially) substituted for a pluralist and formally ‘diverse’ national self-image. As a means of trying to avoid the necessary tension between the nation and oppressed groups, politicians softened the demand for assimilation into attempts at ‘integration’ and ‘community engagement’. The result of this, however, has not been to magically rid the nation-state of its ideologically racist logic or of its real structures of violence, but simply to invent formal categories of inclusion, and depoliticised understandings of community. As ever the real violence and racism continues and develops beneath the surface. Most notably; this shift towards a depoliticised understanding of community was also the shift away from explicit anti-racism, and it often meant an abandonment of a structural analysis of racism.
What neoliberal ‘multiculturalism’ proposed was a mediation between the state and minorities via official ‘community leadership’ bodies; what this means in practice is the creation of quasi-state bodies to ‘represent’ ‘community concerns’ abstracted from the politics which problemises every notional ‘community’. In recent years, with the intensification of the ‘War on Terror’ we have seen how this logic of ‘community engagement’ can just as easily serve to police and discipline racialised groups, particularly muslims, and enforce state authority.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews is an old institution, but as recent weeks have shown, it has nevertheless attempted to stand in as a body of ‘community leadership’ not dissimilar to institutions specifically created to facilitate community engagement. The Passover scandal is a stark reminder of the hollowness of the claims of ‘community leaders’ to speak for minorities, but also demonstrates how the very idea of ‘community’ itself can serve to suppress political questions.
Jewdas are a group founded on this antagonism; their attempt to reclaim diasporic Jewish identity and contest the claim of the state of Israel to speak for Jews is the product of an explicitly political project. Jewdas have attempted to reclaim a Jewish identity defined by its opposition to racism and state violence in a way which rejects the liberal understanding that communities simply ‘exist’; their project represents an understanding that the definitions of any community are alway contested, and there is no community, religious, ethnic or cultural, which is not the product of political conflict. By contrast the attempt to present the Board of Deputies as synonymous with the ‘Jewish community’ also served to portray a depoliticised image of that community, and disguise an implicit politics of bourgeois nationalism.
Even on the Left the logic of ‘community engagement’ can seem tempting; the notion that we can simply ‘listen to communities’ can seem to offer a way out of thorny and contentious political disagreements, but we need to recognise that this too often means abandoning our political responsibility as socialists. Anti-racism always requires the courage and the strength to take responsibility for our arguments and to question the terms of the debate. Most of all, fighting oppression is always a political question, and it is rarely uncomplicated.
Fighting anti-semitism therefore means explicit solidarity and anti-racism. It means building a politics which rejects state-power and the easy answers offered by ‘community leaders’. It means constantly fighting to overcome the divisions established by the ruling class and capital between oppressed groups. And it means recognising that the relations and boundaries of communities, like those of society, are never fixed; it is our responsibility to transform them, and this is something we must do if we are going to become capable of transforming the world.