The Rabbi and the real issue

Submitted by Zac Muddle on 27 November, 2019 - 7:37 Author: Daniel Randall

Jewish identity and history is a profoundly important aspect of my life. But I’m not a communalist. I think the idea of a unitary interest for ethnic groups is dangerous, and I think official community leaderships, especially in faith groups, are basically reactionary.

An anti-communalist, secularist, anti-clerical critique of the role in Jewish life, and in social and political life in general, of people like the Chief Rabbi has been developed by Jewish radicals over many years, finding perhaps its most exuberant expression in the work of people like Benjamin Feigenbaum. Equivalent critiques have been developed by radicals from other ethnocultural communities for their own contexts.

It should be noted, however, as an aside, that sections of the left have somewhat hampered their ability to assert this critique in the case of the Jewish community by the fact they have rejected its applicability to other communities pretty recently.

A large section of the far left spent much of the mid-2000s engaged in an opportunist, communalist orientation to Muslim communities, promoting and allying with religious conservatives and running election campaigns on an explicitly communalist basis (the “Respect” lash-up with George Galloway).

But, back to the Chief Rabbi. Here’s the problem: however historically reactionary the role of the conservative clerical leadership has been, we can’t wish out of existence that he is speaking to a real issue.

There is a real and very serious issue in the Labour Party and on the wider left with antisemitism, the Labour leadership has frequently flailed around and dithered in its response, and a great many Jews do feel, at best, deeply uneasy about voting for Labour given all of this.

If we, by which I mean the socialist left, broadly defined, want to persuade Jews to move beyond a communalist consciousness, if we want to develop a working-class anti-racism, we have to understand and have answers on these issues.

That’s why responses to the Chief Rabbi’s statement that simply scoff at it, or dismiss it as hyperbole or overreaction, or, worse, antisemitic responses that talk about the Chief Rabbi being puppeteered by Israel, will compound and entrench the problem.

Responses that have insisted that Mirvis’s support for Israel is the key “context” for understanding his intervention also have this effect. The issue isn’t that Mirvis’s wider reactionary politics might not be informing his intervention here — I’m sure they are; that’s just how consciousness and ideology works, isn’t it? — it’s that what this tells non-Jews is that the primary “context” within which they should consider Jewish concerns about antisemitism is what the position of the Jews in question is on Israel.

And given that most Jews support or have some affinity with Israel, however diffuse, what this implies is: most Jews are fair game.

Another especially obscene response to Jewish people expressing the view that they can’t vote for Labour because of antisemitism I’ve seen frequently is one which basically runs: “Because of your selfish, and probably manufactured, concerns about antisemitism, you’re going to be complicit in perpetuating policies that kill people; and if you’re prepared to do that... maybe people were right to hate you in the first place?” It’s rarely expressed that starkly, and I’m hyperbolising somewhat, but people who follow these debates will recognise the form.

“Just get over it” is never going to work as a response to a member of a community that faces systemic oppression — or, in the case of Jews, has a deeply embedded inherited cultural memory of experiences of systemic oppression and attempted genocide.

The only way out of this mess is for the left to seriously confront and understand the roots and contemporary construction of the antisemitism in our own midst, which requires first an acknowledgement that it exists, and for us to respond patiently, via reasoned debate, which involves listening to people and engaging with their arguments, even when you sharply disagree.

You don’t have to concur every time a Jewish person says something is antisemitic, but if you want to persuade that person of socialist ideas, you do need to, as a minimum, a) know what you’re talking about, b) understand the problem, and c) be able to engage in a mode of exchange that doesn’t reproduce and reaffirm the problem.

Everyone should start by reading Steve Cohen’s book That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic, and we’ll take things from there.

• Daniel Randall is a Jewish socialist and Labour Party supporter. The above is adapted from a thread he wrote on Twitter in response to Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s statement urging people not to vote for Labour.

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