The rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party from 2015-2020 brought to public prominence a strain of left-wing antisemitism that has always been there but had otherwise been out of sight and out of mind to most people. The refusal of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters to accept that the behaviour of a man lionised as a symbol of pure and principled socialism could be antisemitic, and that the movement he led was genuinely feared by large sections of the Jewish community, has steered the British left into a very dark five years.
In October 2020, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission released the findings of their statutory investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party, which found that the Labour Party and its agents were guilty of unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination against Jewish people. Following the release of the report, I was asked for information about how, as lefties, people could change the culture of left-wing circles from one of denial to one which could identify and challenge left antisemitism. I looked for something that gave the kind of detailed information on how to be an ally that other communities have produced, but found a specific guide for left-wing people on how to be an ally to Jews was lacking. I have therefore borrowed from a couple of the great guides that I found on how to be a good ally to the black community, and written one myself. B’ezrat Hashem, I hope it is of use.
Left-wing antisemitism existed long before Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and will continue to live long afterwards. I have experienced antisemitism from members of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Green Party, from unaffiliated lefties, anarchists, communists and the broad spectrum of organised far left groups. I don’t have to prove to anyone’s satisfaction that I have experienced antisemitism from people who think of themselves as antiracist, socialist, good people, because I have experienced it, for more than a decade. The deafening silence of people I consider to be friends and comrades is always the hardest part to have to live with.
The answer to left-wing antisemitism is the same as all racism – to accept that it is real, to believe its victims when they describe it to you, to amplify their voices, and to speak up in solidarity with them.
This guide will show you how.
A very quick overview of antisemitism, including tropes, the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and the legal framework in the UK.
(Also in PDF)
The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism
A definition of antisemitism produced by academics in response to criticism of the IHRA. Released April 2021.
A very light sleeper: the persistence and dangers of antisemitism (1994)
Runnymede Commission on Antisemitism
A broader 60 page report that documents the historical persistence of antisemitism in British society and culture. It specifically considers and describes far right antisemitism, left antisemitism, and religious antisemitism (Christian and Islamic).
Click to access AVeryLightSleeper-1994.PDF
That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic by Steve Cohen (1984)
Full book-length, academic analysis of how we ended up with left-wing antisemites convinced they’re opposed to racism in all its forms.
A Gentile Privilege Checklist
A checklist of the ways you get to live your life in ways that I don’t.
Antisemitism on the Left and the Whitewashed Documentary
An article by me on the Whitewashed documentary following the release of the Chakrabarti report on antisemitism in the Labour Party in June 2017. Contains multiple examples of antisemitism I have personally experienced from the left.
Stop Comparing Jews to Nazis. Please.
An article that I wrote in the aftermath of the Israeli government’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014, when I had to spend weeks having Holocaust imagery and Nazi rhetoric being displayed wherever I went online and off to “criticise Israel”. I explain why this is antisemitic.
Definitions: IHRA vs JDA
One of the hotly contested aspects of the antisemitism debate: what is antisemitism?
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is a global organisation that works to promote Holocaust awareness and education. In 2016, they adopted the Working Definition of Antisemitism that had been used by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia since 2005, and added 11 examples of antisemitic behaviour. Activists have been urging institutions and other nations to adopt the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism ever since and at the time of writing, dozens have.
The IHRA definition is controversial among many. This is partly due to its origins as a work produced with the involvement of Israeli and Jewish groups who would define themselves as Zionists (who are not considered to be good-faith actors), and partly because many of the examples given concern discourse around the State of Israel. Opponents of the IHRA allege that it is used to censor legitimate criticism of Israel and weaponise allegations of antisemitism against anti-Zionists. The reality is somewhat mixed: the IHRA is a guide to indicate what could and could not be antisemitic, and because a significant percentage of leftwing antisemitism is related to the discourse around Israel/Palestine, it is inevitable that most accusations against leftwing activists would concern that rather, than, say, accusations of Jews of killing Christ or poisoning wells. It is also fair to acknowledge that the IHRA is a guide for non-Jews, and that non-Jews, faced with complex decisions about the context, intention, and implications of a statement or proposal, will not necessarily strike the right balance, or make a call in a situation where a nuanced position is impossible that leaves the accused feeling aggrieved and misunderstood. Finally, there are some who weaponise allegations of antisemitism to silence criticism of Israel, and the IHRA is another tool with which they do this.
In response, the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem brought together a group of scholars to create another definition of antisemitism that was more tightly defined and could command wider support. This was released in April 2021 after a year of work. The working group included Jewish and non-Jewish scholars and professionals with a range of political views across a number of relevant disciplines, including antisemitism studies, Holocaust studies, Middle Eastern studies, philosophy and journalism. The Jerusalem Definition of Antisemitism is much longer and detailed, and contains 15 examples of which, again, 10 concern Israel/Palestine.
The JDA was immediately embraced by opponents of the IHRA definition on the left, including many of those who have been expelled or suspended from the Labour Party for allegations of antisemitism. This has caused suspicion among supporters of the IHRA that the JDA is intended to excuse certain types of antisemitism. Bizarrely, most of the statements for which those individuals were held to account are also antisemitic according to the JDA, and like the IHRA definition, the JDA was instigated by Israelis with the involvement of Jewish people who self-identify as Zionists, so it is not entirely clear what they think the crucial difference is. Whether the JDA is more or less effective as a guide to interpretation will become easier to judge as it begins to be used.
For myself as a Jew in the pew, this debate is irrelevant. I know what antisemitism is when I see it and how I feel when I experience it. Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire described antisemitism as something you “catch on the edge of a remark”. I do not need a 15 point list to judge whether something someone said to me is antisemitic. In 2016, I contacted Hadeel, a Scottish social enterprise that sells crafts on behalf of Palestinian artisans, to ask if I could commission a kippah for a BDS-supporting Jewish friend of mine. The lady who answered the phone declined to even pass my request on to any of their suppliers because “as far as they are concerned, Jewish symbols are a symbol of the enemy”. The Palestinian shopkeeper in East Jerusalem who sold me the fabric that my tallit is made from would probably disagree. I’m not going to find that incident defined as antisemitic in any list of examples, though it undeniably was (and patronisingly racist towards Palestinian people, too). Personally, I do not take a view on whether the IHRA or the JDA are superior, and I regard all protracted arguments over whether this or that group should adopt this or that definition of antisemitism as a distraction from the real issues.
Things to Remember
The Holocaust is still within living memory
You may have seen Schindler’s List or associate the Holocaust with your childhood memories of learning about WWII as something that happened a long time ago and which has little, if any, emotional resonance for you. Jews sit at dinner tables and talk about how their parents or grandparents fled to this or that country as a result of Nazi persecution. There are still people alive who prepare to celebrate festivals without family members or the communities they grew up in. The Holocaust is viscerally real, it basically happened five minutes ago in Jewish history, and the impact on the Jewish community and the Jewish psyche is still rippling out. Jews who have no personal or familial connection to the Holocaust still think about it all the time.
If, in your humble opinion, Jews seem obsessed with the Holocaust, that because the Holocaust happened. I don’t know how to explain to you why I might be preoccupied with a genocide of my people, or afraid that it will happen again.
If the Holocaust seems like an emotive subject, that’s because it is an emotive subject.
The Holocaust isn’t the only time Jews had to run away
You may think, oh, but the Holocaust was the consequence of fascism. Fascism is right-wing and bad. No-one could imagine *the left* doing such a thing.
A million Jews fled the Soviet Union for Israel in the 1990s. 10% of the British Jewish community is descended from Russian-speaking Jews who escaped a century of communist oppression. The left has absolutely persecuted Jews as enthusiastically as the right, even if they weren’t as homicidally inclined or as effective. It’s of little comfort when you’ve had your life destroyed and your community displaced to hear, “Hey, at least they didn’t try to commit genocide!”
Your strident antiracism doesn’t protect you from the suspicion that you might one day also come for the Jews, or at least, do nothing in the face of other people coming for the Jews. When antisemites start up about Zionist control of the banking system or sing of the moral imperative to free Palestine “from the river to the sea” and you say nothing, what conclusions should we be drawing about where your sympathies lie?
Jews get to not care about their Jewishness/Jews get to be antisemitic too!
Everyone has a complex sense of self, with multiple identities on which they place greater or lesser emphasis according to the situation.
For some people, being Jewish is all-encompassing, their primary identity and something that determined where they live, who they married, how they raise their children, and who they associate with.
For some people, being Jewish isn’t important, and they don’t think about it.
For some people, being Jewish is just something they were told is part of their ancestry, like being told your grandfather is from Glasgow. A piece of information you don’t really do much with, but it’s there. You might have some feelings about it, or you might just consider it interesting, but it doesn’t have much of an impact on how you live your life.
For some people, being Jewish is important to them, but less important than other identities, like being LGBT, being black – or being socialist.
The definition of who is a Jew is a matter for the Jewish community. Determining whether someone is Jewish based on your ideas of the religious or cultural boundaries of Jewish identity, so you can weigh the legitimacy of an antisemitic comment that has been made in their direction, is none of your business.
Comments like “that person isn’t Jewish, they have a Jewish father” or “That person doesn’t identify as Jewish”, or digging through their history to see if they have made sufficient comments about being Jewish to count as someone who could experience antisemitism in your humble opinion, is not helpful.
Antisemites don’t care about the complexity of Jewish identity, they target anyone who can be conceivably associated with being Jewish (such as having a Jewish-sounding name), and act accordingly.
Similarly, people who have a claim to Jewish identity may have political goals which disregard the effects of their statements on Jews or the Jewish community. There are always people in every minority community who do this.
Rajinder Singh, a Sikh schoolteacher, was the first non-white member to join the BNP in 2010 because he blamed Muslims for the murder of his father during the Partition of India in 1947. Do Mr Singh’s personal circumstances mean that the BNP was no longer white supremacist, or did his membership challenge the otherwise universal consensus of the Sikh community that the BNP is a racist organisation that was harmful to British Sikhs? No.
Similarly, just because someone identifies as Jewish does not mean that they may not engage in antisemitic discourse or promote antisemitic figures or ideas for their own personal reasons.
Jews cover the political spectrum and some may see antisemitism everywhere, some may be disgusted by antisemitic discourse and boycott anyone who flirts with it, some may be deeply discomforted by the behaviour of individuals or movements they consider to be comrades but continue to associate with those individuals or movements for what they see as a higher purpose, and some may be enthusiastic antisemites willing to weaponise their claim to Jewish identity to further their political aims. Setting Jews against one another is not helpful, and furthers the cause of antisemitism.
Dividing the Jewish community into “good Jews” and “bad Jews” according to what you want us to think and say, is antisemitism.
The Livingstone Formulation
The Livingstone Formulation was defined by David Hirsch in response to Ken Livingstone referring to a Jewish journalist as a Nazi concentration camp guard in 2005. In the ensuing furore, Ken Livingstone, who was Mayor of London at the time, claimed that he was just being persecuted for his views on Israel.
The key elements of the Livingstone Formulation are as follows:
- To refuse to discuss the content of the accusation by shifting focus instead onto the hidden motive for the allegation.
- To make a counter-accusation that the accuser is not mistaken, has not made an error of judgment, but is getting it wrong on purpose.
- To collapse everything, some of which may be demonization of Israel, support for boycott, or antisemitism, into a legitimate category like ‘criticism’.
- To allege that those who raise the issue of antisemitism are doing so as part of a common secret plan to silence such ‘criticism’.
The Livingstone Formulation conflates everything, criticism of Israel but also other things which do not seem to be so legitimate, such as repeatedly insulting a Jewish reporter by comparing him to a Nazi, into the category of legitimate criticism of Israel. The Livingstone Formulation does not simply accuse people who raise the issue of antisemitism of being wrong, it accuses them of being wrong on purpose: ‘the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone critical…’ [my italics]. Not an honest mistake, but a secret, common plan to try to de-legitimize criticism by means of the instrumental use of a charge of antisemitism; crying wolf; playing the antisemitism card. This is an allegation of malicious intent made against the (unspecified) people who raise concerns about antisemitism. It is not possible to ‘use’ ‘the accusation of antisemitism’ in order to delegitimize criticism of Israel, without dishonest intent; the accusation is an accusation of bad faith.
For more information:
Consciously or unconsciously held, the belief that all Jews are just trying to cover up for the crimes of Israel leads to a short-circuiting in the brains of many people who identify as left-wing or counter-culture, so that they will start talking about Israel in conversations that previously had nothing whatsoever to do with that state. I have personally experienced people whom I have embarrassed or bested in debate, who have no information about me or my politics other than that I am Jewish, suddenly start using highly emotive language about “apartheid Israel” with hyperlinks and images of Israeli war crimes, in what is a clear thought process of “You have upset me, so now I will upset you, you Jew”. This is antisemitism.
If someone inserts themselves into a conversation about antisemitism and airily dismisses the entire debate as “criticism of Israel is not antisemitic”, that is antisemitic speech.
If you switch the topic of conversation abruptly from antisemitism to “the crimes of Israel”, that is antisemitic speech.
If you let someone engage in this behaviour without comment or intervention, you are a bystander to racism. Don’t be that person.
Antisemitism as speaking truth to power
Racism, in the modern world, is often characterised as “prejudice plus institutional power” – you have a powerless group of people who are persecuted, who must be defended and protected from the powerful. This conceptualisation relies on those groups actually lacking power and staying in a disadvantaged socio-economic position from which they can be defended by white saviour liberals and socialists. For people who hold by this definition, it gets awkward when you have individuals from otherwise disadvantaged minority groups who hold power – Conservative Party Cabinet Ministers who are black or Muslim are very confusing to many left-wingers who then accuse them of “betraying” their communities by- not being powerless..?
Where this concept of racism falls down as far as antisemites are concerned is that the entire Jewish community is perceived as being powerful – and therefore cannot experience racism in the way that powerless groups do. In 2012, Ken Livingstone held a private meeting with Jewish Labour supporters regarding his behaviour in which he said that Jewish Londoners wouldn’t vote for his politics anyway because they are rich.
Left-wing antisemites like Ken Livingstone point to the socio-economic status of the Jewish community as a whole, the success of prominent Jewish academics, politicians and media figures, and feel that the Jewish community does not need defending as a powerless group, we’re doing just fine. Better than fine. In fact, the Jewish community is so successful, we actually influence media and political discourse in the service of our own community’s interests, to the detriment of other minority groups – like the Palestinians.
The Palestinian people are one of the most powerless groups in the world today. Millions of people are stateless, displaced from the homes of their parents and grandparents, penned into specific areas they can’t leave without permission of people with guns, trapped in refugee camps for three generations by an unholy alliance of Western powers, Israel, Arab states and with the connivance of humanitarian organisations like the UN, left to rot while their future is treated as a political football in the international Game of Thrones. A powerless group of people who are persecuted, who must be defended and protected from the powerful.
The Palestinian people fit left ideas of a marginalised group who experience racism as prejudice plus power in a way that Jewish people do not. The Israeli government is powerful. The Israeli government is predominantly Jewish, and acts to protect and defend Jewish interests and the Jewish state. Diaspora Jews are powerful and their community institutions all support Israel as a Jewish state. Therefore, although *obviously* Jewish people aren’t all responsible for the actions of Israel, most are, and as political short-hand, they should be assumed to be somehow on the side of the powerful and bad actors until they demonstrate their credentials otherwise.
This is how the left arrives at the idea that Jews complaining about antisemitism are all acting in bad faith. The historical persecution of Jewish people, the displacement, the murder, the pogroms, they don’t happen anymore, because Jews are now powerful, and Jews in positions of power are just using their ancestral experiences to justify their persecution of the powerless now. It’s not antisemitic to tell the truth to power. It’s not antisemitic to “criticise Israel”. It’s not antisemitic to point out that this or that person’s views on antisemitism must be coloured by their association with the Israeli state or the Establishment and their presumed underlying motives to be acting on its behalf.
Except that, racism is racism. Barack Obama was a United States Senator when he was unable to hail a cab because he is black. He was the Democratic candidate for President of the United States when John McCain referred to him on national television as “that one there”. He was President of the United States sending drones to drop bombs on civilians in Afghanistan when people were posting memes to Facebook depicting him as a monkey.
You can be powerful, and still experience bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination.
The expectation that Jewish people who may own big houses, who may have well-paid jobs, who may hold elected political office, who may be fully signed-up shills for the Israeli government, cannot nonetheless feel hurt and degraded by antisemitic rhetoric and behaviour, or that they somehow “earned” it because they don’t share your political worldview, is the blind spot of the left.
No Conservative MP who is a member of Conservative Friends of Israel has had to have round-the-clock security.
Boris Johnson has never had to move house because of the level of abuse and violent threats from people who stand in solidarity with the oppressed.
The persecution of Jewish Labour MPs from 2015-2019 which forced all but two of them from office was not because of their Zionism.
This acceptance that “bad” Jews are fair game for harassment and victimisation cascades down to Jews who do not have big houses, hold elected office or support Israel, who have to watch people they identify with as one of their own being bullied, abused, and treated as other for being Jewish. It encourages left-wing activists who see this as righteous behaviour to look at Jews in their own networks as potential oppressors or seditious elements in cahoots with the “bad” Jews, who must be interrogated, or marginalised “just in case”. This tolerance of antisemitic behaviour in left-wing circles creates an intimidating, poisonous atmosphere that no-one should experience, least of all when it is created by people who claim to be antiracist.
This behaviour is antisemitism. This is racism. It is wrong. And your silence is consent.
How to be a Good Ally
Don’t be antisemitic when discussing Israel
Here’s a visual guide:
Credit: David Schneider
Here’s a more detailed list:
Don’t open a comment on antisemitism with “criticising Israel isn’t antisemitic”
Nearly everyone knows that criticising Israel isn’t antisemitic. The only time you need to be making this point is in discussion with someone who thinks that criticising Israel is antisemitic – they exist, but there aren’t that many of them, and you won’t find them in left-wing circles. Otherwise starting your comments with some sort of affirming statement about how personally, you think that Israel is a shocking violator of human rights BUT antisemitism is bad, just validates an existing belief widespread among the left that all debates on antisemitism are dominated by Zionists trying to defend Israel in bad faith. The actions of the Israeli government hasn’t got anything to do with antisemitic statements and behaviour, so why even mention it? Leave it out, and watch what happens.
I started declining to disclose my views on Israel-Palestine in discussions about antisemitism a couple of years ago, and it has been remarkable how often people feel the need to start demanding to know what they are so they can pass judgement on my legitimacy as a Jew to describe and define antisemitism. But criticism of Israel isn’t antisemitic, and we’re talking about what is and is not antisemitism, so why do you need to know what I think about Israel, exactly? I’ve had some people, frustrated by my refusal to disclose any position on Israel-Palestine, decide to start talking about Israeli war crimes anyway, and at that point, the subject change, and their reasons for changing it, becomes very obvious.
Create space for Jews to talk about antisemitism without having to prove themselves as good or bad Jews in relation to Israel. My political opinions don’t have bearing on my personal experiences of antisemitism, so don’t let anyone else try to go there. Don’t agree to a loyalty test for everyone to have the “correct” position on Israel before they’re “allowed” to talk about antisemitism.
Call out antisemitism for what it is
I have spent more than a decade watching people that I considered to be friends, many of whom I didn’t meet through politics, posting antisemitic memes, images, and sharing articles defending left-wing antisemitic behaviour into my Facebook feed. I have never let any of them go by without making a comment saying “this is racist”.
Occasionally, someone will go, “oh god, I didn’t realise, sorry”, and delete it.
Often, they will respond with “criticism of Israel is not antisemitic” and I will end up having an argument about how comparing Israel to the Nazis or defending Jackie Walker’s rants about how Jews financed the trans-atlantic slave trade is actually pretty antisemitic.
A lot of the time, they don’t respond at all, and their share, and my comment, will just stay there, for all to read.
About 80% of the time, I will be the only person who says anything.
The number of times I have seen people post images or articles which deride black people or defend anti-black racists I could count on my fingers, and 80% of the time, there will be a flood of comments from people saying “this is racist, take it down” (they nearly always refuse and it ends up being a huge thing with hundreds of comments and a lot of unfriending).
Don’t let your comrades post antisemitic bullshit without incident.
If there aren’t consequences, they will keep doing it.
Don’t throw Jews under the bus
If you post a statement to social media, you are responsible for creating a platform that other people will then use to make their own commentary.
A common scenario:
You make a statement relating to antisemitism (or Israel, or Jeremy’s Corbyn’s Labour). The comments start coming in. They start to veer away from your non-racist statement into allegations about how the right are just making up claims of antisemitism to smear the left.
Then Jewish people or allies come in to talk about their experiences of antisemitism on the left, how it is real and that dismissing it is contributing to the problem.
A massive argument ensues in a sub-thread where one or more Jews (or allies) are fighting a lonely battle against some socialist bro who thinks that left-wing antisemitism is a contradiction in terms, who starts leaning into making antisemitic statements and invoking antisemitic tropes, and regards any effort to point this out as justification for his belief that people are just out to attack the left, which he personifies. Things get heated, and the people involved are obviously upset.
Everyone else comments innocuously away in the other subthreads. You say nothing.
If that happens, on the platform you created, you have failed completely in your duty as an antiracist.
You have actively contributed to the problem.
Antisemitism isn’t a thing that is happening over there that the left aren’t addressing properly through education.
Antisemitism is happening right in front of you, and you aren’t doing anything about it.
Disrupt these conversations. Amplify Jewish voices. Repeat what they are saying and affirm that you believe them. Tell your comrades they are behaving inappropriately, even if you can’t bring yourself to tell them they’re antisemitic. Post links to articles about what left-wing antisemitism looks like. Show solidarity.
Take the heat, or don’t post your original statement in the first place.
Understand the diversity of the Jewish community
Some people don’t “look” Jewish. Some people do. In 2017, I was crossing a road outside my home in Haringey, where there is a significant Haredi Jewish population, and a Haredi man in a 4×4 cut up a driver but had to stop before the lights changed. The other driver got out of her car, went over to his car, and starting kicking it, shouting, “Do you think I’m Palestinian? You think you can get away with that here?”
Physical violence in the street towards visibly Jewish people is not the preserve of the right. Don’t act like the left have a problem with mean comments but they’d never do anything as bad as the fash. It’s not on the same level, sure, but it’s there, and I don’t care that I’m more likely to be assaulted by a right-wing thug than a left-wing one. My head is still getting kicked in.
Similarly, if you’re Jewish, you get the honour of experiencing antisemitism (sh’koach!). It doesn’t matter if we don’t look like an Ashkenazi Jew, or we have non-Jewish names, or we’re a convert or we’re a person of colour, we have just as many stories to tell and the pain is real. Don’t send me pictures of Neturei Karta, a Jewish sect you know nothing about, and tell me that the “real” Jews justify your behaviour because they look more Jewish to you than I do. They don’t.
Shraga Stern’s fight with his own community over mandatory LGBT education in schools (which he opposes) and subsequent alliance with Jeremy Corbyn, who is his local MP, produced some fascinating news stories. Stern produced various letters of support from the Jewish community for Jeremy Corbyn to try and get him elected as Prime Minister so he could stop this attempt to indoctrinate Jewish children into accepting gay people, letters which subsequently turned out to be faked – but none of that context actually means anything to you, so just don’t wheel out this guy in the black hat and the long black coat as evidence that the “real” Jewish community is actually just fine with Jewish public figures being harassed and getting death threats. Look at the drop in the Jewish vote for Labour in 2017 and 2019 if you want to guesstimate what we really think.
Drop the whataboutery
You don’t care about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. You don’t. You think Muslims just shouldn’t be Tories. Conservative racism is not a problem you regard as fixable, because you believe racism is inherent in right-wing ideology. Don’t effect a sudden concern about racism across the political spectrum as soon as someone starts talking about antisemitism on the left. You know what you’re doing, and so do I.
I was at a party in 2020 when someone said to me, “so, you’re Jewish, could you please explain what’s the deal with these stories about antisemitism in the Labour Party?” Before I had said a word, literally as I was opening my mouth, someone sitting next to me said, “Well, isn’t it the case really that Islamophobia in the Conservative Party is a bigger issue?”
Not to me, no. I don’t know what Tories say in their private members’ clubs, because I don’t hang out in them. But living as I do in a lefty bubble, having my experiences as a Jew constantly dismissed as “mood music” and the kernel of some broader plot by nefarious actors to undermine Palestinian rights and the cause of socialism is something very, very familiar.
Don’t let people broaden out the conversation when it’s on antisemitism. Don’t oppose racism in all its forms when Jews are talking about their experiences of antisemitism. Oppose antisemitism. There is a time to talk about anti-black racism, and Islamophobia, and anti-traveller rhetoric, and it’s not seconds after someone has just said they’ve witnessed antisemitism on the left. Don’t change the subject, and if someone else does, change it back, until the conversation is done.
Get over your goy fragility
If you are heavily emotionally invested in your identity as an antiracist, and someone accuses you of being racist or making a racist statement, that hurts. You feel indignant. You get defensive. You might say, “I’m a lifelong antiracist, how could you say that?” You might consider that you have just been misunderstood. You might feel that it is your accuser that needs to retract that hurtful statement, and dismiss the suggestion that they might have a point.
White fragility is a well-documented phenomenon and there’s been plenty written on it, and I have nothing to add. Here, I apply the defensiveness, the indignation of white fragility to how “antiracist” people react when they’re called out for employing antisemitic rhetoric or promoting antisemitic ideas.
We say on the left that you are either racist, or anti-racist. There’s no such thing as just not being racist in a racist society. To be antiracist doesn’t mean you’re so not racist you came out the other side, but that you’re aware that racism is something that is culturally and structurally conditioned and you have to actively recognise your own biases and be willing to challenge them before being asked. And that if someone does claim that you are being racist, you are open to the possibility that your own worldview has caused you to miss something.
Much of the heat and fury that Jews have had to live through when discussing antisemitism in left-wing circles in recent years comes down to the feelings of non-Jewish people who think that antisemitism is the complete opposite of everything that they stand for, and that therefore anyone accusing them of it, or accusing someone that they identify with, must have an underlying motive for lying. It becomes super easy to find that motive if the person making that accusation is of a different political persuasion to you, and automatic if you perceive your “side” to be under attack from groups and individuals who wish you ill.
And I’m here to tell you to get over it.
The appropriate response to someone saying that you saying or doing something is antisemitic is:
“Is it? What did I miss?”
Live with the burning feeling, and actually ask yourself, “did I do something that fell short of my own standards as a principled antiracist?”
And then, if they’ve got a point, the appropriate thing to do is to apologise, and to stop engaging in that behaviour.
There’s really nothing more to it.
In 2020, the EHRC report which found the Labour guilty of unlawful acts included a finding of fact that in 2016, Ken Livingstone had harassed the Jewish community in his capacity as an elected official of the Labour Party. Specifically, that he had done so through his actions in response to various social media postings by Naz Shah MP.
Naz Shah, Labour Party MP for Bradford West, had made several antisemitic posts around the time of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, including a map of Israel superimposed on the United States captioned, “Solution for Israel-Palestine conflict – relocate Israel into United States“, on which she had commented “save them some pocket money”.
When this came to light, Naz Shah apologised immediately, stated that she recognised that these posts were antisemitic, and committed to reaching out to her local Jewish community to smooth over relations. Which she then did.
Over the four years in which the scandal of antisemitism in the Labour Party grew worse and worse to the point that the Labour Party was ultimately found to have breached the Equality Act 2010 in its harassment and discrimination against Jewish people, the Jewish community never raised the case of Naz Shah as an example of an unresolved issue of antisemitism. Naz Shah apologised, and meant it. We know what teshuvah looks like.
In contrast, the man who defended Naz Shah by making absurd antisemitic statements on national television continues to be held up as an example of an unrepentant antisemite, whose actions ultimately would have gotten him expelled from the Labour Party (truly an achievement under Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour) if he hadn’t abruptly resigned.
So, get over it. If Jews or allies are telling you, “that is racist”, assume that we know what we are talking about. Take it down, retract, apologise, learn something new, and get on with your life. If someone you know or identify with is prolonging a situation, claiming the Israeli lobby is at work, or saying they can’t be antisemitic because they have Jewish friends, tell them they’re being antisemitic and treat them as you would any racist. Don’t defend antisemitic behaviour because the accusation makes you feel hot under the collar.
And don’t claim that the Jewish community owes you something because of your otherwise strong record of antiracism, or that “I don’t know why I bothered” or “fine, I’ll leave you to it in the future then”. This is antisemitism.
Your antiracism is not contingent on minority communities expressing appropriate gratitude or knowing our place as a powerless group under your protection.
If your antiracism is contingent, then it’s not principled antiracism. Is it?
You can be antiracist and still be racist.
We all have blind spots.
Familiarise yourself with the Jewish calendar
The Jewish calendar, like the Islamic one, is not Christianity just with different names. This assumption often results in people wishing me a happy Hannukah, or talking about Hannukah as if it’s some sort of Christmas but for Jews in terms of its significance. Hannukah is actually our least important festival, a very minor affair that involves lighting candles and eating doughnuts.
Jews have two major festive periods:
- April, which you can roughly map onto Easter. Pesach (Passover) is an eight day festival of which the first two days are the most important.
- October, which doesn’t map onto anything you would recognise. The October festivals are the “High Holy Days” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, followed a week later by the considerably less well-marketed eight day festival of Sukkot, which ends in another, separate festival, called Simchat Torah.
You don’t need to know anything about any of these religious holidays or their significance, although you are welcome to learn. What you should know is that these are times when many Jews go offline, disconnect from technology, arrange family gatherings, and don’t turn up to your political meetings. So don’t organise them for then. If you wouldn’t try and hold a public meeting on Eid or Christmas, don’t organise them for Yom Kippur. Just get a calendar and mark those dates on, and you won’t end up in a situation where Dame Louise Ellman MP had a Constituency Labour Party meeting to discuss her deselection as an MP organised on Yom Kippur. Intentional or not (in that case, quite intentional), such behaviour just excludes Jews from public life, and is discriminatory.
Similarly, if you organise a meeting on a Friday night or demo on a Saturday, some Jews just won’t attend, because they’ll be off celebrating Shabbat. The number of Jews who keep Shabbat is very small relative to the pressure people have on their diaries trying to organise a meeting, so it’s not antisemitic to hold events on Shabbat. But if you do it habitually, or in defiance of Jews who want to be involved and have specifically indicated they would like to attend, then you’re not respecting what it means to live in a multi-cultural, inclusive society. Don’t be that person.
Don't assume that every Jew knows everything about being Jewish
Nearly every religion has its conservative and liberal wings that don’t know that much about each other. The British Jewish community, if you made them pick a religious tradition, is about 60% traditional (Orthodox and Masorti), and 40% progressive (Reform and Liberal). A broad majority of the community, like Britain at large, is in practice secular, non-affiliated, or non-religious.
Additionally, because being Jewish is also an ethnicity, there are particular ethnic religious traditions, of which the two biggest are Ashkenazi (Eastern Europe) and Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese), although there is a huge range of smaller groups (such as the Bene Israel, the Indian Jews).
What this means is that is the Jewish knowledge of most Jews stops at bar mitzvah, and mainly comprises what they were told by their synagogue or family about their own tradition. The chances that any given Jew will know the answer to some of your burning questions about specific Jewish customs or Jewish perspectives on a topic, unless it’s quite basic, is fairly low. If we aren’t wearing a black hat, we probably don’t know why some Jews wear them. I’ve been to yeshiva (intensive Jewish learning) but I’ve never been to a Jewish funeral, baruch Hashem, and I couldn’t tell you a thing about what happens at them.
Try to find out the answer to your questions beforehand on a good website like myjewishlearning.com to get some context, and then approach your Jewish friends with an eye to getting their lived experience rather than factual answers. It is not out of the question, with the divide between traditional and progressive Judaism being what it is, that you may have run into someone who has strong opinions they present as fact.
Googling beforehand is also a way of determining whether your question may be offensive – I have been asked (or told) about Jews having sex through a hole in a bedsheet about five or six times in my life, and I quite honestly couldn’t tell you how that ever became an idea the goyim got hold of, or why any of the people who asked me thought it appropriate to mention if they thought it was true.