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Ordinary anti-Semitism

Why would anyone deny that they are anti-Semitic? Why is racism seen as wrong? Historically, distaste, suspicion or hatred of Jews and other “others” has been an unremarkable feature in many societies. While the “great” events in the history of anti-Semitism—the massacre in York in 1190, the Spanish expulsion of 1492, the Kishinev pogrom in 1903 and, above all, the Holocaust—loom large in the Jewish imagination, it is the persistence of “casual,” everyday anti-Semitism that reveals its deeper roots.

In 2005, the writer Simon Garfield published a book of extracts from the diaries of a selection of ordinary British citizens, written in the immediate post-war period. The diaries were solicited by the Mass Observation project, which sought to take the temperature of public opinion, both during the war and afterwards. The value of the diaries is that they were written neither as a public document for subsequent publication, nor as a purely personal document. They occupy the borderlands between uncensored emotional expression and face-saving public rectitude and, as such, give an invaluable impression of what was seen as acceptable to say in semi-public settings.

On Nov. 20, 1945, Maggie Joy Blunt, a writer in her mid-thirties living in Slough, reports a conversation with friends about the situation in Palestine (then under British control and with the Zionist movement pushing for independence):

At lunch today someone mentioned the problem of Palestine. “I don’t think the Jews should be forced to leave the country—let them go to Palestine if they want to.” “Jews get such a financial hold on a country.” “That’s true—all the same, a country is nearly always better off where Jews are powerful—they may make big money, but they circulate it.” “They produce much talent too.” “Pity they have such unpleasant characteristics.” “Only due to long years of persecution—aggressive trait has developed.” “Well, we all get aggressive don’t we, when we feel looked down on?”

On July 8, 1946, Herbert Brush, a 72-year-old retired electrical engineer from London, walked past the headquarters of the Zionist movement:

When I was walking along Great Russell Street I noticed a crowd of people outside Zion House, and soon saw that they were all Jews, men and women. They were talking excitedly and going in and out of the house like bees to a hive, so I suppose they were cooking up something to say to the Government about Palestine. There was no mistaking the Jewish proboscis of the men, though it was not quite so apparent on the women. The Jews are always in trouble with some other nation and always will be I suppose.

On July 27, 1946, Edie Rutherford, a 43-year-old housewife from Sheffield, reports on a conversation with her husband:

Husband said this morning that he has only one sorrow about the Nuremberg thugs and that is that they did not exterminate the Jews before they were stopped at it. Husband went on to say Jews are parasites. That they are never found with their coats off, that they are cunning etc. I regret this wholesale condemnation of his but I know that he is sorely tried every day in his timber work by Jews.

On May 19, 1947, B. Charles, an antiques dealer in his mid-fifties from Edinburgh, mentions a chat he had:

I had a very interesting conversation with a man from the Control Commission in German this morning … It seems all the stories we heard about the concentration camps in Germany were almost all true. But the only people in these camps were Jews and political prisoners. We both agreed that the Jews should be exterminated and that the political prisoners were just fools. It seems about 5,000,000 Jews were killed in Germany alone.

Jews were not an obsession for any of the diarists. Their paradigmatically consensual anti-Semitism simply pops up occasionally in matter-of-fact comments. Nor are they politically radical, involved in fascism or sympathetic to the recently beaten Nazi foe. It’s hard to say whether the desire expressed by B. Charles and Edie Rutherford’s husband for the Jews to be exterminated would have translated to active support for a program to do just that. What comes across is the permissibility of stereotyping Jews by their looks and behaviors, and of contemplating their persecution. While not all British people in the immediate post-war period would have spoken this way, these are not thrillingly transgressive comments, furtively confided.

These diaries offer a glimpse into a time when anti-Semitism was speakable, if not necessarily actionable. This is what Anthony Julius has called the “minor” (but not necessarily mild) anti-Semitism that had a quotidian presence in British life until at least the early 1960s. It is rare for this kind of quotidian anti-Semitism to reveal itself with such stark clarity. Today, exposure of the normative anti-Semitism of the past is often treated as a kind of revelation of a dark embarrassing secret. The casual and not-so-casual anti-Semitism of figures as diverse as Richard Nixon, Roald Dahl, or T.S. Eliot is a matter of anguished debate today, as if they were not products of their times. The question of whether we can still understand them apart from their anti-Semitism, whether their distaste or hatred for Jews necessarily becomes their entire meaning, implies that it is possible to find a usable past entirely free from anti-Semitism.

As with anti-Semitism, so the historical ubiquity of other forms of racism are shocking today and constitute a barrier to coming to terms with our past. I was born in the early 1970s into a Britain where golliwogs adorned jam jars, where editions of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers circulated freely, where black-upped minstrels appeared on TV and comedians still joked about “Pakis.” I was also born at a time when such horrors were being actively combatted and in which more direct forms of racist violence and oppression were beginning to be confronted.

Pointing out the ubiquity of casual, quotidian racism in the recent or distant past risks smug complacency. Not only is racist talk still with us and, indeed, resurgent, but even if it were not, the cleansing of swathes of the public sphere of casual racism is not the same as cleansing society of deeper, insidious forms of racist thinking and its consequences. There is an opposite danger too: placing quotidian racism in the context of its times can risk appearing like a tepid defense of the indefensible. Casual and not-so-casual racism, flippant and not-so-flippant bigotry and other expressions of hate and distaste—none of this has ever been right. Nor is it our inevitable destiny as humans. But there is no way round the fact that throughout history it has often (or maybe even usually), been permissible to speak in disparaging ways about entire subsections of humanity. That is not to say that “everyone” was anti-Semitic or racist, nor does it mean that those who might speak in casually anti-Semitic or racist ways would support political program that would turn prejudice into persecution. It simply means that it was a possible option that could be spoken of in many circles without automatically consigning you to pariahdom.

The casual anti-Semitism expressed by the diarists was to rapidly lose its normality in the post-war period. Indeed, they were already living in a world in which the boundaries of the speakable had become increasingly constrained. This might seem a bizarre argument, given that they were writing at a time when a Western country had just carried out a systematic genocide of a people. When we think of the Nazis and anti-Semitism, we don’t generally think of them as being constrained by anything other than the limits of their hateful imagination. But as I have argued elsewhere, even the Nazis found it exceptionally difficult to speak openly of the extermination of the Jews other than in private meetings or in whispered asides, regardless of whether they approved of it or not.

The Nazis were still constrained by the process of Western modernity that, beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, made it more difficult to argue for a politics based on open hate, greed, anger and violence. The nation-states that emerged from the revolutions of the Enlightenment period, as well as those that reformed themselves incrementally, were to be governed through reasoned, rational debates conducted by equal citizens. They were to eschew venality, violence and prejudice; one’s place in the hierarchy was to be dictated by one’s individual capacity, not birthright. Of course, such ideals were often, even usually, hypocritically pursued. The extension of the rights of modernity to women, slaves, religious and ethnic minorities, and many others was often pursued slowly or not at all. In any case, ideals of reason, freedom and democracy have never completely been embraced everywhere and at all times in the West or elsewhere. But the appearance of non-prejudiced, rational and reasonable action has become essential for political and social legitimacy.

In this context modern anti-Semitism had to adopt new and creative methods to uphold its legitimacy. Hatred for Jews could no longer be a justification in and of itself, and theological arguments against the Jews began to lose credibility as politics became increasingly secularized. New justifications had to be sought in “rational,” “scientific” assessments of the Jews’ conspiratorial nature, their racial degeneracy, the dangers they posed to the world. When the rights of citizenship were extended to Jews, new possibilities emerged for othering Jews. Now that Jews could assimilate should they wish to, their invisibility was leveraged to create new anti-Semitic myths. The Jew became monstrously powerful, a hidden conspirator.

Nonetheless, with laws formally enjoining non-Jews to treat Jews as fellow citizens, anti-Semitism became a much more arduous pursuit. This was one of the lessons of the Dreyfus affair: the process of driving one Jew out of the French army ended up becoming mired in years of political turmoil, faked conspiracies and labyrinthine legal battles—and in the end, he was exonerated. The Holocaust set the bar high as well; non-Nazi anti-Semites might have been forgiven for thinking whether it was really worth all the bother to go to such lengths to try and eliminate every single Jew. Much better to confine one’s distaste for Jews to private or semi-private comments within one’s own circle, to occasional asides, to keeping a wide berth from them where possible, excluding them from one’s golf club and letting them live at a distrustful distance.

In places like the United Kingdom, where support for a systematic program of anti-Semitism became restricted to a small far-right fringe in the post-war period, everyday anti-Semitism ended up withering on the vine, lacking mainstream means for operationalization into coherent policy. Perhaps B. Charles would have signed up as a guard in an extermination camp for Jews if one were to have been set up in Edinburgh, or perhaps not. He would have known that this was unlikely and so could have enjoyed a flippant moment of fantasizing about genocide without either official endorsement or condemnation.

The post-war period also saw a series of developments that were to make it even more difficult for public, acknowledged anti-Semitism to gain a significant foothold, in most Western countries at least. The pioneering war crimes prosecutions at Nuremberg in 1945–6 introduced the concept of “crimes against humanity” and, simultaneously, the popularization of Raphael Lemkin’s neologism of “genocide” provided an emerging language that could, legally and morally, ground a rejection of Nazi-style anti-Semitism. The various clauses of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights ruled out the possibility that a state could treat one class of citizens as of lesser worth than another. Its universalism, also reflected in other work of the United Nations, set up a baseline, a default position that the membership of a particular group is not cause to treat an individual as being of lesser worth. The rapid decolonization process in the post-war period also saw Western powers lose their ability (with varying degrees of reluctance) to directly impose their will on others. Large-scale immigration to the United Kingdom and other European countries, initially from former or current colonies, pushed governments to expand who was part of the national community. Legislation such as the U.K.’s 1965 Race Relations Act began a process through which racism and discrimination were officially recognized and combatted. In the United States, the civil rights struggle saw official and semi-official barriers to African-American participation in social and political life confronted and eventually removed.

None of these developments meant that anti-Semitism and racism were abolished in the post-war period. But what they did mean was that the possibility of turning prejudice into a systematic and open program of persecution or discrimination became progressively restricted and, in the process, it became even more difficult to express antipathy towards particular minority groups. Looking at 1960s speeches by racist politicians such as Enoch Powell in the United Kingdom and George Wallace in the United States, we can see a kind of raging against the dying of the light; a desperate rearguard action against the closing of the space of the speakable. Similarly, the institution of the legislative and administrative paraphernalia of Apartheid in South Africa in the late 1940s was as much as anything born out of a lack of confidence that white rule could be maintained indefinitely without considerable institutional scaffolding.

Perhaps we can also see such a rearguard action in some of the controversies surrounding “political correctness” and “identity politics” that have raged since the 1980s. With the ability to argue for systematic programs of racism now severely curtailed, there were fewer places in which one’s racist desires were not frustrated. The passion with which, for example, racist stand-up comedy in the United Kingdom, or restrictive country club membership criteria in the United States, were defended, demonstrates the desire to retain a space in which the delights of racist speech could be experienced. To an extent, anti-Roma racism performs this function today; where other forms of racism have been delegitimized, hating the Roma can be a last redoubt of open prejudice.

It might seem like Donald Trump and other right-wing populists have re-enabled the open expression of racism. Certainly, the relief and delight that finally someone is “saying the unsayable” is palpable amongst a significant section of the supporters of the populist right. But the logic that made racism unspeakable in the post-war period remains powerful. That racist expression is experienced as transgressively thrilling is testament to the enduring strength of the boundaries constraining racist speech. We are still a long way from a situation where the casual racism that we saw at the beginning of this chapter becomes unremarkable once again.

Even when racism speaks publicly, it is still usually bound up in disclaimers of not being racist. The practice of denial of racist intent—“I’m not racist but … ”—is now deeply embedded in everyday discourse. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has argued, in the United States racism has become “color-blind,” with a multitude of techniques used to speak of race without speaking of race. A willful “ignorance” of white implication in persistent racial hierarchies has long been a central part in their maintenance long after officially mandated discrimination was abolished.

This habit of denial even compels those on the far right who really should embrace the identity of racist to avoid the term. “Race realist” or sometimes “racialist” are often preferred, framing racism as the disinterested recognition of what they see as irrefutable differences between races. Further, they affirm the language of anti-racism when complaining about “anti-white racism” and the threat of “white genocide.” This simultaneous affirmation and disavowal of racism can be absurd. The U.S. Proud Boys movement simultaneously states that anti-racism and “Anti Racial Guilt” are central tenets, and describes the ideal Proud Boy as a “Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.” One of the most extraordinary examples of this simultaneity was posted on the popular blog Boing Boing in January 2017: A photo of the door of a pickup truck in New Mexico featuring a Confederate flag with the slogans “Secede!” “Anti-Sodomy” “Common Decency” “Pro-Life” and … “Non-Racist.”

This drive to deny racism extends to anti-Semitism. Indeed, denial may actually be stronger when it comes to anti-Semitism. As Kenneth Marcus in The Definition of Anti-Semitism argues:

Nowadays virtually everyone is opposed to anti-Semitism although no one agrees about what it means to be anti-Semitic. Indeed, it may be argued that virtually every anti-Semite today is also a professed enemy of anti-Semitism.

One of the reasons for this is that, for many of those on the left who are accused of anti-Semitism today, the accusation is an assault on one’s very identity. It is fair to assume that, for the person who painted “non-racist” on his racist truck, to be accused of racism would be annoying, but they are unlikely to view non-racism as the very core of their being. That is not the case for many of those on the left who have been accused of anti-Semitism in recent years. In the post-war period, the left has often been in the vanguard of the fight against racism and anti-Semitism. Indeed, the “new left” that began to emerge in the 1960s became increasingly focused on anti-racism as a central component of the struggle for human liberation. To call self-defined anti-racist activists anti-Semites is to tell them that they are not what they claim to be. This is one of the reasons why Jeremy Corbyn and others like him have had so much difficulty in dealing with the issue: it is bewildering and unsettling to be accused of traducing one’s deepest-held beliefs.

Of course it is also a serious charge to call a Christian Zionist like John Hagee, who loudly proclaims his love for the Jewish people, an anti-Semite. But it is perhaps less wounding to dub someone an anti-Semite who is, at best, apathetic to other forms of racism, than it is to attack the reputation of someone who sees themselves as opposed to all racisms. Sometimes there is a poverty of low expectations when it comes to anti-Semitism on the political right. It’s notable that many definitions of anti-Semitism, including the IHRA definition, are silent as to whether Christian statements that Jews are going to hell unless they convert are anti-Semitic or not. Inevitably though, those who proclaim themselves to have a universal standard when it comes to anti-racism are going to be scrutinized more closely.

It is also inevitable that anti-racists accused of anti-Semitism will draw on widely available cultural resources in order to deny those claims. We now have decades of experience in developing sophisticated discursive tools for the denial of racism, and while those on the left may not have been in the avant-garde of the creation of those tools, they are capable of taking advantage of them when needed. Which isn’t to say that accusations are always fair or denials always unreasonable, but that the process of denying anti-Semitism may be identical regardless of how justified the accusation is.

Keith Kahn-Harris