Anybody with half a grip on how many ways there are to fall foul of stereotypes and preconceptions would be cautious about attributing an attitude, opinion or moral act to a person’s ethnic background. But some people seem to be pretty confident about their stereotypes and preconceptions.
How about “Because he is a Jew, he won’t call another Jew antisemitic for criticising Israel”?
Because he’s from a Jewish background, David Miliband is reckoned by the BBC’s Paul Reynolds (who subsequently apologised
via – see the comments on the Engage piece – and, it seems, revised the article) to be free to criticise Israel without anybody attributing this to antisemitism:
“David Miliband’s Jewish background will be noted particularly in the Middle East. Israel will welcome this – but equally it allows him the freedom to criticise Israel, as he has done, without being accused of anti-Semitism.”
Which implies that Jews believe themselves incapable of antisemitic and also that Jews can be confident of an absence of antisemitism in their Jewish critics and so will ‘welcome’ their criticism in situations in which they’d ‘accuse’ a non-Jewish critic of antisemitism. This falsely hints both at a universally-shared Jewish outlook on antisemitism, and the workings of a sinister Jewish cabal. More on Jewish critics of Israel below.
How about “Because he’s a Jew, he won’t get called antisemitic for criticising Israel”? Or “Because he’s a Jew, he can’t be antisemitic”?
As well as being relevant to Miliband’s case above, Ghada Karmi also illustrates these in Bitterlemons. She wants us to think that Jews can’t be antisemitic:
“…the imputation of anti-Semitism is a red herring … In the case of the British boycott committee it is particularly inapt, since most of the members are Jewish.”
Meaning that being Jewish, or getting a Jew to make your point, is a good protection against charges of anti-semitism since Jews are simply incapable of committing an antisemitic act.
Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent, is reported to have said that as a Jew he “would be sensitive to anything antisemitic”. But again, being a Jew doesn’t confer these insights – it doesn’t mean you arrive in the world complete with an awareness of antisemitism and and the faculties to identify it. These things require an education.
How about “Because he’s a Jew, he won’t criticise Israel”?
Robin McKie in the Observer (Review, 5 Aug 2007, p27) writes of biologist Max Perutz “… though he was Jewish he was an implacable opponent of Israel’s treatment of its Arabs”. As if it were highly surprising, then or now, for Jews to criticise the Israeli government when it discriminates against its Arab minority. In fact there have been too many critics to mention, including Benny Morris, Baruch Kimmerling, Tanya Reinhart, Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, David Hirsh, Tony Greenstein, Stephen Rose, Hilary Rose, Gilad Atzmon, Ilan Pappe, Ammiel Alcalay, Shlomo Ben Ami, Eliyahu Eliachar, Shalom Chetrit, Ella Habiba Shohat. Members of groups and movements such as Israel’s New Historians and New Sociologists, OneVoice, The Abraham Fund, Naturei Karta, Marxists, B’Tselem, Gush Shalom, Haaretz reporters, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Independent Jewish Voices (who in distancing themselves from the “all Jews defend Israel” stereotype managed to avoid addressing it – I use past tense because the dust emanating from their CiF page and Web site nearly choked me when I looked in). There are many more individual politicians, artists, academics and activists. I may reject the criticism levelled at Israel by some of the individuals and groups above, but there it is – the critics are, among other things, Jews.
How about “Because he’s a Jew, he’s got a lot of money“, from Big Brother contestant Shanessa who said “I have always wanted to be Jewish, Jewish women have really nice clothes, Chanel suits and expensive things”. Just plain wrong, a stereotype from Shanessa’s perception from the more prosperous parts of North London perhaps or, subliminally, times when British Jews were prevented from owning land and pushed into usury and related occupations.
Wondering whether it were possible to stereotype yourself, I searched the Web for “As a Jew, I”. Some of the statements which turned up are below.
“As a Jew, I cannot sit idle while genocidal atrocities continue to unfold in Darfur” is attributed to US politician Jan Schakowsky and is one of several different Schakowsky”As a Jew” quotes you can find if you search. I know what she means. Israel exists because of genocidal acts and tendencies against Jews, and it’s a kick in the guts to read about Darfur. For the same reasons it’s also a kick in the guts to read about Israel deporting 50 illegal immigrants, most of whom were Darfurian refugees, back into Egypt from where they may be returned to Sudan and and uncertain chances of survival at best. There’s a sense that a Jew’s failure to exert themself in opposition to genocide is more negligent, more of a betrayal, more indecent. So we have this appeal – Schakowsky is not the only one to make it – to a sense of empathy and urgency based on the experience of Jews through history, which amounts to action on ethnic, rather than simply human, grounds. Its power is in the ease with which in these Darfurians you can see your desperate parents or grandparents fleeing Europe, and the inevitable question accompanied by a shameful and chilling sense of betrayal – who are you in this scenario? But I think it’s a fallacy. The holocaust didn’t just happen to Jews – it didn’t even just happen to Jews, Gypsies, gays, disabled people, Poles and dissenters. To a greater or lesser extent holocaust dehumanised or depraved all its contemporaries, and the work of researchers like Milgram which demonstrates that none of us are immune from depravity means that the legacy of its contemporaries is also our legacy. Simply by virtue of being aware of genocide, all human beings are equally guilty if they fail to act against it. Jews who sit by as idley on this or any other a given issue as any Gypsy, gay, disabled person, Pole or dissenter – anybody – are equally blameworthy for their apathy and negligence, not more so. I’d feel very uncomfortable defending people’s right to do nothing in the circumstances of genocide, but my expectations about who should exert themselves most are not based on ethnicity. I understand why Schakowsky made this statement, but ‘Jew’ should be jettisoned and substituted with ‘human being’.
Attributed to Viennese swimmer Judith Deutsch in 1935 we have “As a Jew I cannot participate in the Berlin Olympic Games. My conscience does not allow me”. This is a show of solidarity on the basis of discrimination against her ethnicity. It is also an act of empathy and resistance, but perhaps unlike Schakowsky, it is not a tacit appeal for solidarity or a display of higher moral values. The statement is reproduced from a letter to the Austrian Olympic Committee and constituted, as she wrote, “a personal decision” which she was attempting to explain and so preempt disciplinary proceedings. She was not seeking to persuade anyone of anything on the basis of her ethnicity but, having a lot to lose, appealing to empathy in the members of the Olympic Committee in the face their damaged public relations with Germany. In the event, she failed to convince the authorities and was banned from competing nationally – her family emigrated to Mandate Palestine the following year.
“As a Jew, I’m aware of the benefits open border immigration brings to the US” says a commenter on a story about Buchanan. This is to say “I know how I got here, I’ve visited Ellis Island and I’m not a hypocrite”. Fine – don’t be a hypocrite, and don’t tell us that you’re not a hypocrite. Considering the number of immigrants of different stripes in the US, the “as a Jew” part is superfluous.
“As a Jew, I’d dig calling Bob Marley my cousin”. Weird. I include it for interest.
“As a Jew, i’ve always felt uncomfortable with the notion of the rosary beads being in my stagewear wardrobe… until now!”, from a comment on a Jewish Forward article. Equally weird. On what grounds would Jews be uncomfortable with Catholic artefacts in their stagewear wardrobe? Because religious equipment should remain reverently stored until required? Or because it might weaken the religious identity of non-Catholics?
Based on these and other examples, it is possible to stereotype yourself, then, even when you’re talking about your own personal Jewish experience, if you extrapolate it to persuade others to take a certain course of action. There’s not much else to say really – Jews are a very diverse bunch. Hard to pin down. Some are religious, some are secular, some identify ethnically or culturally as Jews, some acknowledge a Jewish background, some decide to let their Jewish background fade, some don’t really think about it but happen to have a Jewishness thrust upon them in the form of the surname ‘Cohen’. Some feel personally and particularly responsible for Palestinians because they want to demonstrate against an Israeli politician who says he acts on their behalf, some because they feel a connection with Israel, some on humanitarian grounds. Some feel obliged to maintain a vigil for antisemitism. Jews are right-wing, left-wing, centrist or politically apathetic. Some are prominent establishment figures. Some are dissenters. Only a few of the above are mutually exclusive.
Unsurprisingly, in these respects and others, Jews are pretty much like everyone else. There is at least one historical particularity though – Jews are collectively (though certainly not exclusively) exposed to the evil of stereotypes and preconceptions. Like all instances of stereotyping, whether against Jew, Muslim, Irish, gay, woman or man, we have to recognise these and take them to pieces.
Part of this involves not being complacent about our abilities to recognise them and take them to pieces.