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Anti-antisemitism: a proxy war on racism

In the last while I have participated in two events that have given me the chance to speak about the fourth chapter of my book, Why Race Still Matters, ‘GoodJew/Bad Jew’. On November 24th, I spoke at the opening panel of the German Rat für Migration’s annual conference, ‘Body and Race: Conjunctures of Racism in Europe’ and on December 14th, The New Socialist Magazine organised a political education event on Philosemitism and Antisemitism with wonderful speakers, Kieron Turner, Anna-Esther Younes, Michael Richmond and Aviah Day.

At that event, I shared my frustrations about the Rat Für Migration event. The panel itself was wonderful, with amazing insights from Eddie Bruce-Jones, Nacira Guenif and Piro Rexhepi. However, the reception of the critical comments made by the panelists were rather glossed over by the organisers and the chair of the session. As you can read below in the text of my intervention, I wanted the organisers to consider the problematic role of the ‘war on antisemitism’, as Anna-Esther Younes has termed it, plays in antiracism in Germany and beyond. What do conference organisers avoid when organising an event on ‘race and bodies’ which does not centrally engages with the instrumentalisation of the Shoah as – as I put it in my talk – a trauma at the heart of whiteness and of the nation that can be used to incriminate and further racialise people of colour and those still referred to as (post)migrants.

I have not altered the text of my talk (a shorter version of which I also gave at The New Socialist event). However, in that second panel I did reflect on how I opened the talk. I wanted to revisit the blogpost I wrote in frustration and anger during the dispossession of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jersualem last May in which I wrote that ‘“As a Jew” is a phrase I wish to never hear again in relation to Palestine.’ However, since then I have further reflected on this and there is something in it that I find uncomfortable.

When I wrote and published that short piece I was angry and I still stand by every word in it. However, there was something in the enthusiasm for the post that makes me feel uneasy today. Why were so many non-Jewish people so gleeful about the fact that a Jewish person was saying that she didn’t want to be interpellated as a Jew? Did they miss the double sense in which I intend this? I am both angry about the manipulation of something being called the ‘Jewish tradition’ to justify anti-Zionism (as I state in the post) but I am also frustrated about the idea of the exceptional Jew whose utility is solely as an ‘ally’. As I often recount, this is exemplified by the time I was contacted by a conference organiser who wrote to tell me that he ‘needed’ a ‘Jewish, Socialist woman’ for his panel. When I replied that I didn’t feel like being tokenised in this way, I received no reply.

I was deeply inspired by Aviah Day’s comments during our New Socialist panel that Jews must feel that we are actively engaging in our own fight for liberation, not as helpers to that of others. The critique here is of white Jews, for sure, many of whom have resided in the comforts of whiteness, and side with the agents of power and domination. But for me, there is also a problem with only being turned to when we can be of utility which also turns Jews into ciphers rather than real people with an active interest in overturning the structures of domination that also participate in perpetuating harm against us. So maybe, I can speak ‘as a Jew’ but only on my terms, those that speak to my own personal biography, guided by my mother, the inimitable anti-Zionist warrior Ronit Lentin. In any case, I am looking forward to further conversations about how we build long-lasting, meaningful and mutual solidarity. God knows we all desperately need it.

Text of my talk for the opening panel of the Race and Bodies Conference

A meme created by Kieron Turner with a quote from Chapter 4 of Why Race Still Matters

It was during the dispossession of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem last May that I snapped. I wrote: ‘“As a Jew” is a phrase I wish to never hear again in relation to Palestine.’

Not only was I tired of the Zionist manipulation of biblical mythology to justify the violent occupation of another people’s land, but I was also tired of the constant appeal to the ‘Jewish tradition’ to legitimise anti-Zionist Jews who support Palestinian liberation. 

Despite this, I constantly find myself interpellated as a Jew. And as a result, I want to begin this talk by telling you that I am feeling uncomfortable. 

It means something to me to be speaking to an audience in Germany where, over recent years particularly, speaking, acting or even just living and breathing ‘as a Jew’ means being constructed as almost other-worldly, or as I have put it in my book, ‘Why Race Still Matters’, as ‘hyper-human’. At the same time, those racialised as other than white, are seen as ‘not-quite-human’ and forever alien. 

Race, as Alexander Weheliye has written, is precisely about dividing the human from the not-quite-human and the non-human, who are governed and exploited on this basis.

I share in the thinking of the organisers of this conference that – as they say in the programme – ‘the use of the term racism is shaped by historical knowledge of National Socialism [which] often makes it difficult for the analytical category of racism to be used to examine contemporary relations.’

I have made this point many times in my work and I presume that is why I have been asked to address you today. But I note that in the programme, the organisers prefer to talk about racism rather than race itself.

My view is that it is vital to talk about race and not just racism. I do not agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that ‘race is the child of racism, not the father.’

Race does not refer only to the invention of bioracial categories by ideological ‘racists’. It is much better understood as a complex of ideas and practices that cohere as a system of power and a technology of rule. The aim of racializing power is the production, reproduction and maintenance of white supremacy on a global scale. 

It produces the divide between Europeanness and non-Europeanness as central to the modern world order: the global colour line that distinguishes the deserving from those put to service them, those undeserving of life and wealth.

Race, is colonially constituted, as Barnor Hesse puts it, and therefore it cannot be detached from its locus of material production, on the plantation, at the borders, and in terms of my remarks today, in the ongoing settler colonialism of Israel.

As someone who was born on occupied Palestinian land and who self-describes as Jewish European – the Jewish being primary – I feel uncomfortable today because it is the precise conditions created by current material racial arrangements that make my voice hearable at this conference, when that of others is not. 

I can say what I want to say about the uses and abuses of antisemitism today in a way that someone who is differently racialised, especially someone who is Palestinian, Muslim, or a person of colour – even when they are experts of antisemitism, race and colonialism – cannot. One scholar I am thinking of in particular is Dr Anna-Esther Younes whose research on what she has termed ‘the war on antisemitism’ in Germany has been exemplary to me.

In my comments today, I wish to build on the 4th chapter of my book, ‘Good Jew/Bad Jew’. In it, I look at how antisemitism has been made exceptional and why that is bad for antiracism. 

I am motivated by two things:

First, the increasing attacks on pro-Palestinian activists, academics, and artists in the name of the opposition to antisemitism. In Germany several high profile cases have made the news such as that of Achille Mbembe, Brian Eno, and Nemi El-Hassan. 

But there are also many less known or unknown Palestinian academics, activists and others whose freedom of speech, and consequently their livelihoods, are being threatened by the ‘War on Antisemitism’ in Germany. 

On a smaller scale, I had the experience recently of a few lines I wrote on white supremacy in relation to Israel and the occupation of Palestine being requested to be removed from an article that I had been asked to contribute to an edited book on decoloniality and postcolonialism by German scholars. In her review in the recent Ethnic and Racial Studies journal symposium on my book, Younes comments on ‘the concerning trend among certain white Germans to establish themselves as more Jewish than the Jews themselves’. Or at least as the gatekeepers of what passes as acceptable speech on Jews and antisemitism. 

These attacks and cancellations are not just happening in Germany as could be seen in the recent decision of the University of Glasgow to disinvite Somdeep Sen to speak about his book, Decolonizing Palestine.

This is due to the worrying adoption of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism by many universities. 

The European Parliament as well as several states and cities have also endorsed it. Even

its author Kenneth Stern now admits that it runs the risk of being ‘weaponized… to suppress — rather than answer — political speech.’ But just last month it was endorsed by the Australian government.

The second motivation for my talk is the fact that antisemitism is on the increase. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an unleashing of antisemitic conspiracism. The perverse use of Holocaust imagery to protest Covid restrictions is rife. Jews have a very real reason to be afraid.

However, I do not think that making antisemitism exceptional helps either in the struggle against it, or for antiracism in general, especially now, when we are witnessing a deepening of fascist politics. 

So, while thinking about the growth of antisemitism, I am interested in thinking about how I, as a white European Jewish woman who was born on occupied Palestinian land, and who currently lives on the still colonised land of the Gadigal people, can act against it from an anticolonial standpoint. I do not see that fight as separate, different or more important than the struggle against racism in general. 

My argument is that the anti-antisemitism of mainstream institutions, including most politicians, media figures and the official Jewish community, has been turned into a proxy for antiracism. As I wrote,

‘in the present moment, publicly performing opposition to antisemitism and support for Israel – the two having been made equivalent – has become a proxy for politicians’ and public figure’s commitment to antiracism.’

But at times like this I myself feel like a proxy. The fact that I can be heard but that others can’t is a problem at the heart of European antiracism, including the struggle against antisemitism itself.

Some of the most far-right wing politicians and public figures – from the AfD to Orban – dangerously mobilise anti-antisemitism, all with the imprimatur of Israel and the mainstream Jewish community because of their shared Zionism and Islamophobia. This has real-life violent repercussions for Jewish people.

Exceptionalising antisemitism:

Today, Shoah remembrance as a public ritual and civic duty has eclipsed knowledge of the history of antisemitism. Antisemitism has been reduced to the Shoah which itself is reduced to a unique and aberrant event.

There is little to no public understanding of the function ‘the Jew’ – like the Muslim and the Black – had historically for the racial formation of Europe. 

Constructing the Shoah as unique, and antisemitism as exceptional, is central to how the official history of Europe is narrated.  

To place the Shoah in the context of a past and continuous present of race, as intrinsic to the formation of colonial modernity and white, European supremacy – as some scholars of genocide such as Zoe Samudzi are arguing – would mean a real reckoning with its meaning for Europe and ‘the West’. 

Instead, the Shoah is secured firmly in the past. It thus becomes the prototype for racism to which all other instances can be compared (and often found lacking). 

As I wrote in my book, ‘official top-down antiracism sets antisemitism up as the threat to end all threats with the purpose, not of ending antisemitism, but of denying all other racisms within the racial state.’

In the public discourse, race and racism are not discussed as central to the history of Europe, essential to the development and spread of capitalism, or as a central technology of colonial rule.

By detaching race from the facts of history and the present-day in this way it is reattached to racialised people who are now seen as the ‘new racists’: Black, brown, and particularly Muslim people.

The racism of those of migrant origin in Europe is said to flow through their failure to integrate into the societies of their ‘hosts’, and their temerity to protest in the ‘wrong way’ against the discrimination and exploitation they face.

For example, protests against the Israeli Ambassador’s speech in London on November 10 were likened to Kristallnacht, merely because the event took place on its anniversary. 

Although the protest was peaceful, the UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who has opposed the right to seek asylum, tweeted that ‘antisemitism has no place in Britain’, thus connecting a protest against one of the most ardent proponents of Israeli colonialism – who opposes interracial marriage and denies the Nakba – with antisemitism faced by British Jews.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the recitation of objection to antisemitism translates into actual concern for Jews. 

The hypocrisy of those who claim to care about Jews while enacting racist policy is not an error; it is by design. 

But pointing out hypocrisy is a distraction. In general, racism is filled with double standards. Once we stop dwelling on that and understand the particular political function of a fixation with Jews and antisemitism today, then we can start to undo the harm done to antiracism.

The role of philosemitism:

In this regard, philosemitism, a false love for Jews, plays an important role in the exceptionalization of antisemitism. 

Philosemitism while nominally protecting Jews, always casts us as outsiders, and borders on the obsessional. 

Houria Bouteldja theorises a ‘state philosemitism’ which functions to deny any discussion of racism, Islamophobia or any form of structural racism. Antisemitism is responded to by exaggerated philosemitic attitudes by which Jews are once again transformed into ethereal creatures: the mirror image of the antisemitic caricature.

State philosemitism emerged when Europeans realised that it had applied colonialist procedures on its own soil, as Aime Cesaire famously put it in relation to Europe’s reckoning with Nazism and the Shoah.

Decontextualised and depoliticized, antisemitism and the Shoah have been recast as a trauma at the heart of whiteness, and in Germany, at the heart of the nation.

If philosemitism meant actual love for Jews, then it would include anti-Zionist Jews, Black Jews, and Jews of colour and all those who do not fit into a template of what the modern Jewish subject of the post-Holocaust is supposed to look like.

As the French Jewish anticolonialist, Simon Assoun, writes: State philosemitism takes independent agency away from Jews and ‘squeezes us between the forces of power and the popular masses.’

State philosemitism and the ‘war on antisemitism’ have been used to justify repressive measures such as the recent French Law against Separatism.

The law allows for anyone who disrespects the ‘values of the French republic’, naming ‘radical Islamism’ in particular, to be imprisoned for three years or face a fine of 45,000 Euros. 

For President Emmanuel Macron and his supporters, the law is necessary due to the failure of integration and of ‘our fight against discrimination, and racism, such as antisemitism’ which have bred ‘our enemy’. 

Here, Macron singles antisemitism out among racisms, and claims that it was the failure to act against it which created the conditions for the assassination of schoolteacher Samuel Paty (who himself was not Jewish). 

The Frantz Fanon Foundation said about the law that it, is a ‘new demonstration of the coloniality of power’, targeting racialized communities already disproportionately policed and punished.

By setting Jews up as a community to be defended from ‘separatist Muslims’, the law drives a further wedge between Jews and other racialized people with whom we should be in solidarity against both state and popular racism. 

Antiracist proxies:

So, we can see that the fight against antisemitism acts as a proxy for a real opposition to racism with even right-wing actors able to portray themselves as the ‘true antiracists’ because of their performative opposition to antisemitism.

Concern with antisemitism, seen as equivalent to anti-Zionism, and associated with Muslim minorities and decolonial activists and thinkers, rather than with the European elites with whom it originates, is used to justify repressive state action against racialized communities and to whitewash state racism.

On the one hand, antisemitism has become a tool with which to disarm political opposition from the left. On the other, antisemitism is a mere weapon whose mention automatically triggers distrust. This was the simplistic binary presented in the ‘antisemitism crisis’ in the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

For those defending Corbyn, this was seen as more important than the principles of antiracism, and any existence of antisemitism was automatically dismissed as rightist weaponization, rather than being looked at in its own right.

But many on the other side, who saw the Labour Party as rife with antisemitism, often did not have the concerns of actual Jews at heart.

This reminds me that Jews, both for antisemites and for those who manipulate antisemitism for other than antiracist ends, are what David Smith calls ‘ghostly, walking tropes. They are representations of people, not people per se.’

The swing then between the outright dismissal of antisemitism and its manipulation in the interests of states or political actors is of no service to me, a Jewish person. 

The constant attack and counterattack in the ‘war on antisemitism’ leads to us getting caught in the question of whether antisemitism is real or an imaginary weapon. Turning antisemitism into a matter for debate has detrimental effects on both Jews ourselves and on the potential to build solidarities with other racialized people. 

In fact, this debate is not about antisemitism or racism at all. 

Rather it is a proxy through which those within institutions struggle over power. 

The question should not be, does antisemitism exist, or is it more or less threatening than other forms of racism. Antisemitism exists because the extent to which it is a core ideology at the heart of Euromodernity has not been confronted, just as there is a general refusal to confront race as an ongoing political force. 

The very posing of such questions, from either side of the political divide, serves as a way to avoid confronting the effects of race, coloniality and racism at both the local and the global level.

So where does this leave us? In my book, I argue that there are two types of antisemitism: good and bad, just as there are both good and bad Jews. 

Bad antisemitism is presented as ‘real’; it exists among the far-right, the far left and Muslims. In contrast, ‘good antisemitism’, which treats Jews as a racialized subaltern group in service to the state, is left unchallenged. 

Bad Jews are those who refuse to allow antisemitism to be instrumentalized in the service of racial rule. We are anti-Zionist and therefore struggle against racism in all its forms. The bad Jew who refuses to sit in her place is the thorn in the side of the racial state. 

So, anticolonialist Jews acting collectively must work to undermine the role we are assigned under globalized racial rule. 

I am enthused by Santiago Slabodsky’s call in his book, ‘Decolonial Judaism’, for Jews to return to what he provocatively calls our ‘barbarian roots’, the roots that attach us to other racially exploited peoples.

Although white Jews cannot merely deny the role we play in structural whiteness and Euroamerican hegemony, as Em Cohen has pointed out, we can and must align ourselves with the anticolonial, antiracist struggle and refuse to participate in whitewashing attacks on anticolonial resistance in the false name of protecting Jews. 

Alana Lentin