No matter how sincere you perceive me to be, all the above sentence can confirm is my beautiful intentions. It doesn’t tell you anything about whether or not I am antisemitic. To discover that, you’d have to look for a difference between intent and effect in what I say and what I do. Perhaps I’d be the last person to realise, and react with vehement indignation if accused of antisemitism.
This kind of response is summarised in the MacPherson Report’s definition and description of unwitting, unconscious and unintentional racism (6.13-17).
Of course, my intentions matter. Somebody who openly intends to be antisemitic is clearly much more of a direct threat than somebody who doesn’t. But somebody who holds a view of herself as constitutionally incapable of racism is an irrational liability to any multiracial society.
“To study any subject scientifically one needs a detached attitude, which is obviously harder when one’s own interests or emotions are involved. Plenty of people who are quite capable of being objective about sea urchins, say, or the square root of 2, become schizophrenic if they have to think about the sources of their own income. What vitiates nearly all that is written about antisemitism is the assumption in the writer’s mind that he himself is immune to it. “Since I know that antisemitism is irrational,” he argues, “it follows that I do not share it.” He thus fails to start his investigation in the one place where he could get hold of some reliable evidence — that is, in his own mind.”
Modernity excerpts this from Stephen Sizer, Surrey-based evangelical pastor:
“It is true that at various times in the past, churches and church leaders have tolerated or incited anti-Semitism and even attacks on Jewish people. Racism is a sin and without excuse. Anti-Semitism must be repudiated unequivocally. However, we must not confuse apples and oranges. Anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism despite attempts to broaden the definition. Criticising a political system as racist is not necessarily racist. Judaism is a religious system. Israel is a sovereign nation. Zionism is a political system. These three are not synonymous. I respect Judaism, repudiate anti-Semitism, encourage interfaith dialogue and defend Israel’s right to exist within borders recognised by the international community and agreed with her neighbours. But like many Jews, I disagree with a political system which gives preference to expatriate Jews born elsewhere in the world, while denying the same rights to the Arab Palestinians born in the country itself. Jimmy Carter is not alone in describing the Zionism practiced by the present government of Israel as a form of apartheid.”
The rest of Modernity’s post demonstrates that while Stephen Sizer proclaims that he is against antisemitism, he’s actually rolling in it.
Here is Farid Essack shrugging off the good question “Why Israel only?”. He says:
“And to ask Jews to remember their past is hardly anti-Semitic. Jewish activists do this all the time.”
The point is, it depends what this edict to remember the past is in service of.
Jews, remember your past:
- because it’s your only defence against the future
- so that you can empathise with other oppressed peoples
- because people oppressed by Jews are your particular responsibility
- so that you realise it’s pointless to try to integrate
- so that you understand why Israel must carry on existing
- so that you think of yourself as one of the chosen people
- because the Nazis tried to obliterate your future
- because Jewish history is special
- so that you understand how to contribute to the continuation of world Jewry
- so that you learn from your mistakes
- so that you know how to recognise the fascism that’s coming round again sooner or later
- so that you can defend humanity against fascism
- because otherwise you won’t understand enough to be fully Jewish
- because antisemites are trying to rewrite Jewish history
- because it’s an empowering history of survival against all odds
Some of these reasons are trivial, some politicise Jewish history, some mystify it, some politicise Jewish identity, and some are antisemitic.
Farid Essack’s piece was part of a correspondence debate summarised on Engage – see in particular Robert Fine’s response on the ongoing construction of Israel as an absolutely culpable incarnation of negative properties. He doesn’t say that this way of painting Israel is antisemitic, but I would strongly argue that in effect it is. Most Jews find the prospect of cancelling the state of Israel, and Israel alone, hard to explain in any terms which are not extremely ominous to Jews.