On November 9, Brian Klug, the philosophy scholar at Oxford, gave a talk on anti-Semitism at the Jewish Museum in Berlin to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht. The assignment had become politicized because of Klug’s noble positions on behalf of Palestinians; haters created a “dossier” against him, saying that he was an “immoral anti-Zionist,” and a rabbi wrote to Angela Merkel defaming Klug as a purveyor of “anti-Semitism… and memoricide—the murder of the memory of those murdered [in the Holocaust].”
Klug wrote then: “One of the worst things about this hate campaign is that it detracts so much from the solemnity of the occasion — Kristallnacht — and the seriousness of the subject: antisemitism.”
Well, a few days ago the Jewish Museum posted Klug’s lecture, above, and I got a copy of his remarks. The lecture is brilliant, thoughtful, subtle and gracious, and further exposes the dossier against him as a disgusting smear.
Beginning by referring to Kristallnacht as “pogromnacht,” Klug’s lecture offers a helpful definition of anti-Semitism: it involves a false conception of what is a Jew, in which that image of the “Jew” infuses a speaker’s description of a Jew. I excerpt that section below. I also excerpt bits about anti-semitism targeting the Miliband family in England, and about a postwar Jewish slumlord whose reputation was built of anti-Semitic materials.
Klug did not use the lecture as an opportunity to go into Israel’s human rights abuses. He said the Israel issue was the “elephant in the room,” and then discussed the matter in a balanced manner, addressing the degree to which anti-Zionism can be a mask for anti-semitism, and the ways that anti-semitism can also dwell in pro-Zionist positions. I excerpt that bit as well, which includes the plea against an acrimonious and circular debate.
Finally, I excerpt the conclusion of the speech, which is very moving, because it extends the lessons of the Holocaust to the contemporary persecution of Roma and Muslims, and ventures that Klug’s own defamation was a form of bigotry.
First excerpt, about the creation of the anti-Semitic image in England:
Consider the case of Peter Rachman, whose name in England is synonymous with ‘slum landlord’. In the 1950s, Rachman ruled over a property empire based in the Notting Hill area of west London, charging his low-income tenants high rents that they could barely afford. Rachman was Jewish. He was also, apparently, money-grubbing, unscrupulous, shady, exploitative, all of which are stock themes in the figure of the ‘Jew’.
Thus, he was also ‘Jewish’. Antisemitism consists in collapsing this distinction, so that to be Jewish is to be ‘Jewish’. The image, so to speak, fastens on to the reality: it uses the reality to proclaim itself falsely as real. ‘The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot’, is how T S Eliot puts it in two odious lines of poetry. But ‘underneath the lot’ is not the real Jew, the flesh-and-blood Jew; it is Eliot’s Jew, the figure of the ‘Jew’, a kind of cud, chewed over and spat out by the poet. For Eliot, this distinction between real Jews and his Jews is a distinction without a difference. And there’s the rub: thinking that Jews are really ‘Jews’ is precisely the core of antisemitism.
Antisemitism is best defined not by an attitude but by a conception: an answer to the question ‘What is a Jew?’ Defining the word in terms of the attitude – hostility – rather than the object – Jew – puts the cart before the horse. Indeed, hostility is not the only cart that the horse can pull behind it. Envy and admiration are also possible attitudes towards the ‘Jew’; which alerts us to the fact that philosemitism and antisemitism can be very close and can easily turn into each other. What do they have in common? They agree that I, a Jewish person, am larger than life. They share the assumption that I exist for them –
to play a role in their Weltanschauung – and not for myself. They look at me and what do they see? Not an individual but a token of a type, a representative of a group. They agree
that I am not me. With Wilhelm Marr, the man who founded the Antisemiten-Liga in Germany in 1879, we see how close philosemitism and antisemitism can come to each other. Marr wrote “I bow my head in admiration and amazement before this Semitic people …” But he went on to say “… which has us under heel”. Similarly, he described Jews as “flexible, tenacious, intelligent”. These are not in themselves terms of contempt.
Their antisemitic bent is evident, however, when they are read in context: “We have among us a flexible, tenacious, intelligent, foreign tribe that knows how to bring abstract reality into play in many different ways. Not individual Jews, but the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness have overpowered the world.” This ‘Jewish spirit’ and ‘Jewish consciousness’ is what Marr meant by Semitism. It is the main element in the word he
helped popularise: antisemitism. It is the horse that pulls the cart.
Now here is the Miliband bit:
Even as I was writing this lecture, a fierce controversy broke out in Britain over a scurrilous article in one of the tabloids: the Daily Mail. Under the spurious headline ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’, the article attacked the late Ralph Miliband.17 Miliband, who was Jewish, came to Britain in 1940 as a refugee when the Nazis invaded Belgium, and settled in London. Not only was he a prominent Marxist, but his son Ed is the current leader of the Labour Party. So, there was a clear political motive for a right-wing newspaper like the Daily Mail to attack him. And yet, as the writer and journalist Jonathan Freedland put it, there was a “whiff” of something else. Three days later that whiff turned into a nasty smell when, defending the original article, the paper published an editorial with the headline ‘An evil legacy and why we won’t apologise’.
Freedland drew attention to one passage in particular where, unexpectedly, the editorial brought in the Hebrew scriptures. Here is the passage in full: “We do not maintain, like the jealous God of Deuteronomy, that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the sons. But when a son with prime ministerial ambitions swallows his father’s teachings, as the younger Miliband appears to have done, the case is different.” Two points here. First, the editorial, quite gratuitously, brings in ‘the jealous God of Deuteronomy’. This is one of the oldest antisemitic tropes: the vindictive, unforgiving ‘God of the Old Testament’.
The logic of bigotry at work here is based on the principle ‘like attracts like’: if the ‘God of the Old Testament’ is vindictive, unforgiving, and so on, and if the Jews are drawn to this God and vice versa, it follows that the Jews themselves are vindictive, unforgiving, and so on. Second, note the emphasis on Ed Miliband’s political ambition. Warning that he might “crush the freedom of the Press”, the editorial closes with this remark: if he does, “he will have driven a hammer and sickle through the heart of the nation so many of us genuinely love”. Us, note, as opposed to the Jewish subversive who inherits from his refugee father a hate-filled “evil legacy” and is liable to use his political power to stab the nation ‘we’ love in the heart. This is not to say that the Daily Mail was consciously pursuing an antisemitic agenda. But the figure of the ‘Jew’ haunts its editorial like a ghost that cannot be laid to rest.
Now here’s the passage about anti-Zionism.
Let us turn now to the other kind of case: antisemitism in disguise. In raising this issue, the voice in the room mentions the elephant in the room: anti-Zionism. I have no wish to dwell on this subject. But in Europe today, it is impossible to avoid altogether, and at least one panel tomorrow is devoted to it. The difficulty with this subject is that it is so politicized. In the public debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is a familiar, depressing pattern in which opponents appear to be locked in an embrace from which they cannot escape. Critics of Israel, crossing a line in the sand, find themselves accused of antisemitism. They react by accusing their accusers, alleging that the charge against them is nothing more than the machinations of ‘the Israel lobby’. At once, this is seized upon as an antisemitic slur, which in turn is denounced as a Zionist smear. Round and round they go, down and down they go, in an acrimonious circle that gets ever more vicious. Now, the political argument is going to run and run, and all of us have a view about it. These views divide us. But when we come together on a night like this, we must endeavour to put them to one side. If we take the question of antisemitism seriously, as everyone here does, then we must try to extricate it from the political arena….
[In 1968 I took part] in a conference of the National Union of Students, where, representing my college union, I proposed a resolution condemning the so-called anti-Zionist purges carried out at the time by the government of Poland. The resolution
(which was passed) said that these purges should be condemned for what they really were: antisemitism in disguise. So, I know full well that antisemitism can be hidden behind the mask of anti-Zionism, as the voice in the room puts it. But think what, as a matter of logic, this means. If it can function as a mask, this implies that anti-Zionism, as such, is not antisemitic: a mask that is identical with what it masks is no mask. (That would be like a wolf in wolf’s clothing.) And if it does function as a mask, then once we strip the mask away the thing behind it is laid bare – as if the mask had never been there.
In other words, antisemitism is antisemitism, whether disguised as anti-Zionism – or as anything else – or not.
Then what is it? What do we mean when we say, in a particular case, that anti-Zionism is antisemitic? … the figure of the
‘Jew’ is projected onto Israel because Israel is a Jewish state (or onto Zionism because Zionism is a Jewish movement). Sometimes this is obvious to the naked eye. But what if we think it is hidden behind a mask? Then we must look between the lines; and if we are right we will uncover the same figure implicit in the text. Text or sub-text, the figure is still the figure of the ‘Jew’: that is the point. And there are ways of bringing
subtexts to light. Suppose there is a group that presents itself as pro-Palestinian, but… we suspect that there is an antisemitic motive. We could look at the literature they produce, their history, their membership, their political connections, and so on. Then we are in a position to form a judgment, a judgment based on evidence.
There is no algorithm for doing this. The evidence might be insufficient. Moreover, we can be wrong. There might be room for argument by people of goodwill who weigh the
evidence differently, some believing that antisemitism does lie between the lines, others not. But this would be a rational process of argument, rather than the vicious circle of
acrimony that I described earlier. The decisive issue would be this: Does the group in question project the figure of the ‘Jew’ (directly or indirectly, openly or otherwise) onto Israel? Do they, so to speak, pin a yellow star on the place, like the badge that was pinned to [Andre] Kertész’s breast? Do they, in short, turn the Jewish state into the ‘Jewish’ state?
Masks come in all shapes and sizes, but the same logic and the same procedure applies to them all. In Europe today, especially on the far right, antisemitism is at least as likely to lurk behind a mask that is pro-Zionist as anti-Zionist. Take the British National Party (BNP). Here is an observation made a few years ago by Ruth Smeeth, who was the anti- racism coordinator for the Board of Deputies of British Jews: “The BNP website is now
one of the most Zionist on the web – it goes further than any of the mainstream parties in its support of Israel …” That is not the end of the sentence. But let me pause to tell you that the BNP is an offshoot of the National Front and is widely regarded as neo-fascist. It is led by Nick Griffin. Griffin is notorious for his denial of the Holocaust in the past. In the 1990s he edited a BNP magazine called The Rune, whose antisemitic content led to
his criminal conviction. So, what has happened? The remainder of Smeeth’s sentence explains it: the BNP website “at the same time demonises Islam and the Muslim world”.
Jews, at least for the time being, are not in the gunsights of the BNP, whose viewfinder has swivelled and now seeks out Muslims. Support for Israel has become a stick with which to beat Muslims and to try to attract Jewish support. But it is a change of tune and not a change of mind or change of heart. To quote Henry Grunwald, who at the time was president of the Board of Deputies: “Despite all its attempts to portray itself differently we know it is still the same antisemitic, racist party it always was.” How do we know? By applying Wittgenstein’s dictum: “look and see”. We know by looking behind the scenes – behind the mask – and taking stock of what we see. We know because of what we know about the BNP’s past and the track record of its leader, Nick Griffin. We survey the evidence and the evidence leaves no doubt: behind the pro-Zionist mask there lurks an antisemitic face.
Finally, here is Klug’s conclusion, which takes off from anti-Roma persecution.
Exactly two weeks ago, when I sat down to collect my thoughts for this concluding section, my eye was caught by a banner headline in the Guardian newspaper: ‘Fear and distrust of Roma threaten to erupt into a European witch-hunt’. The article reviewed the moral panic that swept though parts of Europe when a so-called ‘blonde angel’, a little girl with fair skin and blue eyes, was taken by police from a couple in Greece. Because
the couple were Roma or Gypsy, the automatic assumption was that they had abducted the child from ‘white’ parents, an assumption that appears to be false on both counts: they did not abduct the child and the birth mother was herself Roma. Then something similar occurred in Ireland. The London newspaper Metro reported it in a story that filled their front page under the blazing headline ‘Anger as girl No.2 taken in gipsy raid’. The
seven-year-old child, described as having “blonde hair and blue eyes” was taken into care. Subsequently, DNA tests showed that she was indeed her parents’ daughter and she was returned to her family. Meanwhile, the words in the media do their destructive work, reinforcing the negative stereotype of the ‘gypsy’.
The second example is the case of a 25-year-old graduate student, Pavlo Lapshyn, who came to England in April from Ukraine. Within days, he tried to trigger a “race war”,
stabbing Mohammed Saleem, an 82-year-old Muslim grandfather, to death and exploding bombs near a number of mosques in the West Midlands with intent to maim and kill. At
his trial last month he pleaded guilty, saying that “he hated anyone who was not white”.
It is not difficult to join the dots; if anything, it is difficult not to join them. True, the Roma or gypsies were not targeted on Pogromnacht. But the Nuremberg race laws of September 1935 were amended two months later to include them – and also black people – in the prohibition of marriage and sexual relations with “those of German or related blood”. Their link to the fate of Jews under the Nazis is captured in a telegram that
Adolf Eichmann sent from Vienna to the Gestapo in 1939. He explained how they would be deported: by attaching “carloads of Gypsies to each transport” of deported Jews.
Like Jews, the Roma were sent to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, where most of them perished. As for Pavlo Lapshyn, his attacks were aimed at Muslims, not Jews.
But his social media pages contained “material relating to Hitler” as well as “rabidly antisemitic material”.
There are numerous dots with different names: racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, and so on. There is also the dot that consists in demonising
an individual for political purposes: distorting their work, misrepresenting their views, maligning their character: constructing them as someone they are not. (I don’t know what
name to give this dot but I am quite sure it exists.) Each dot is its own dot, unique in its own way. Each word that names each dot matters in its own right. But it also matters as part of a lexicon of bigotry. We need to single out each dot and bring it into focus. But we also need to see the complete picture that emerges when the dots are joined. In other words (and this is my parting shot), antisemitism points beyond itself: it points to the myriad forms that bigotry can take. If, when we say ‘antisemitism’, we do not join the dots, then do we really know what the word means? And are our ears sufficiently attuned to the echoes of shattering glass?