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The Acceptability of Antisemitism

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

The Jews can't catch a break when it comes to antisemitism... The following piece by Noah Besbrode details antisemitism's existence in spite of Jewish assimilation. If you'd like to send a response to this article, please send it in to youngzionist@fzy.org.uk

The Jewish people, in general, have assimilated extremely well into Western society. Many have comfortably adapted to the cultural norms of the countries in which they live, and you wouldn’t easily be able to identify a Jew if you passed them in the street. People are often surprised for example, when I tell them that I’m Jewish, as they respond confused: “Oh, but you don’t look Jewish?” There may be a stray Chai necklace or Magen David which gives it away, but your average Jew isn’t ultra-orthodox. Jewish identity, over the years, seems to have been extrapolated from a cultural character that has been moulded by strong values of family, community and tradition. Due to the absence of a visual stigma facing most Jews, the antisemitism experienced by many perhaps develops from the perception that the success of the Jewish community permits a certain derision and prejudice. The classic tropes and stereotypes that plague Jews; being stingy, exceedingly well-off, and controlling the government and media could all be seen as back-handed compliments that are a testament to Jewish success in the West.


This Jewish success may seem like another stereotype, but it is statistically quantifiable. Although Jews account for less than 0.5% of the world’s population, they have been inordinately successful and occupy many more influential positions in political, cultural and economic spheres than they should for a grouping their size. The average Jewish IQ of 120 is among the top global 10%, and Jewish people have won far more Nobel and Pulitzer prizes than should be expected. Could this clearly demonstrable and objective success therefore permit antisemitism as a backlash to Jews assimilating too well?


Historically, there are multiple examples of successful Jewish assimilation throughout the world. In 19th century Russia, many Jews had either assimilated culturally, or even converted to Christianity, yet persecution abounded and was followed by vicious pogroms which drove Jews from their homes. More than 100 pogroms occurred across Russia in 1881, and, subsequently, the antisemitic May Laws of 1882 were passed, resulting in 3 – 5 million Jews fleeing Russia, fearing for their safety. Theodore Herzl in ‘The Jewish State’ (1896) lamented about the Jewish position in Western Europe, stating: “In countries where we have lived for centuries we are still cried down as strangers”, which demonstrates that no matter the Jewish assimilation, antisemitism still plagued the Jews. Religious Judaeophobia had merely morphed into a new, more virulent racial antisemitism which, as Europe approached the turn of the century, became based upon pseudo-scientific serology and Social Darwinism. No matter how irreligious a Jew appeared, the very fact that they had Jewish blood in their veins was enough to warrant discrimination.


The impact of this Jewish blood is often over-exaggerated. Jews have had a long and complex relationship with money, often resulting in vicious stereotypes. As with many stereotypes, they are based upon a kernel of truth: in the past, Christians were religiously forbidden from engaging in usury, so it was one of the few occupations that ghettoised Jews could partake in. Thus, came the stereotypes of parsimony and fixations on money typified by the character of Shylock, the antagonist in Shakespeare’s 'The Merchant of Venice', a figure also exploited by Nazi propaganda centuries later. Jews may, in reality, constitute barely over 2% of the population of the United States, yet Americans mistakenly estimate Jews make up 20% of the populace due to their wealth and influence. Further conspiracies, such as the Rothschild's family quest for world domination, aren’t helped by the fact that half of the 10 richest Americans in 2019 were Jewish, as the seeming evidence of Jewish control lends credence to antisemitic rhetoric. Whilst major antisemitic incidents such as pogroms may be less common, there are still many who continually peddle ignorant stereotypes and tropes that promulgate antisemitic attitudes.


Antisemitic incidents are on the rise throughout Europe and the world, despite apparent assimilation of much of the community. The current socio-political uncertainty could be blamed for encouraging support for more hyperbole on both the left and right of the political spectrum and the creation of a need for a scapegoat. Relatively unchallenged political figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump contribute to a society that permits prejudicial attitudes. It creates a constant wariness that even I, as a not overly religious or obvious Jew, have found myself susceptible to. I recently felt uncomfortable admitting my religion to a stranger in a pub; I was worried about my non-Jewish friend discussing Yom Kippur with me too loudly on a train for fear of confrontation, and sadly it seems my apprehensions were confirmed by the terrorist attack that occurred in Germany a day later. Whilst assimilation seemingly eliminates the differences that may have been targeted in the past by antisemites, it by no means eliminates the problem.


A particularly high-profile and well-documented example of antisemitism at the highest levels of society is the controversy that has engulfed the Labour Party in recent years. After Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015, there have been multiple accusations of antisemitism, to the extent that the Equality and Human Rights Commission began an investigation into the party for its ‘intrinsic antisemitism’. More recently, the Labour NEC had promised in September 2018 that the party had adopted all IHRA examples and definitions of antisemitism after heavy public pressure, yet none of this can be found in the party’s 2019 rulebook. Perhaps this is why the 2017 report by Campaign Against Antisemitism found that the cause of Jewish discontentment with the Labour party is “the way that it has very publicly failed to robustly deal with the antisemites.” Whilst it may be hasty to confuse correlation with causation, it does seem telling that incidents of antisemitism rose by 74% between 2015 and 2018. The permission of such behaviour in the upper echelons of government does seem to beg the question, if it’s allowed in parliament, why isn’t it allowed in wider society? One need only look at student politics to witness the antisemitic remarks of the Black and Minority Ethnic Officer, Omar Chowdhury, at Bristol University earlier in the year. He told another Jewish student on Facebook to “be like Israel and cease to exist” and was allowed to continue in his position. In this vein, if the Labour party, or Jeremy Corbyn himself, isn’t held accountable, why would his followers who support him and his policies so fervently not be emboldened to engage in and echo these antisemitic sentiments?


The evidence of rising antisemitism throughout Europe is plain to see in the survey carried out by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) on ‘Experiences and Perceptions of Antisemitism’. This is the largest ever worldwide survey of its kind which shows how Jewish people experience antisemitism across 12 EU Member States. The report highlights about 90% of respondents feel that antisemitism is growing in their country, and almost 30% have been harassed with those who looked visibly Jewish worst affected. Antisemitism has taken root to such an extent that regular harassment has become a normality, and almost 80% of victims do not report serious incidents to police or other bodies as many feel that nothing will change. Sadly, over a third of respondents now avoid taking part in Jewish events or visiting Jewish sites for fears over their safety. Compared to the first FRA survey of 2013, the responses demonstrate a marked increase in perceptions and experiences of antisemitism.


Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to gather any meaningful data on both assimilation, as it is hard to keep track of Jews who are becoming ‘less Jewish’, and antisemitism, due to social acceptability bias. This bias means that whenever people are asked in a survey about their attitudes towards Jews or Jewish matters, they often say what they think is socially acceptable, hiding their own views, or don’t even realise their unconscious biases. In spite of these methodological inadequacies, a clear link can be traced between assimilation and antisemitism, in that almost no matter how much a Jew has acculturated, they could still fall victim to prejudice. Interestingly enough, some have noted an almost masochistic relationship between the Jews and antisemitism: Spinoza, in Theological-Political Treatise (1670), notes small, non-lethal acts of antisemitism prevent over-assimilation through solidifying religious identity and maintaining Jewish unity. This curious idea of Judaism benefitting from its pain has been attested to by Sartre, in 'Anti-Semite and Jew' (1946), where he wrote: “I’m a Jew because the antisemite reminds me that I am”. Whilst I agree that the maintenance of Jewish identity is important, I don’t think the begrudging welcoming of prejudice is the best way to go about it. Antisemitism is an issue that finds itself more on the national and international agenda with each passing day, and whilst I was always aware that it was a lingering spectre that would haunt Jewish life, it’s certainly not an issue that I thought I would find myself grappling with so early in my own.


Noah Besbrode


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