On Zionism, Anti-semitism and Racism — A personal response.
I pondered long and hard about whether to write about my perceptions of the storm that has grown around antisemitism and both the impact it has had on me and the ways my perceptions have changed over the past few months, years even. But writing helps me clarify thoughts in my own mind even without an audience and that swayed me in the end. My decision to press publish was after reflection on David Gilbert’s post. He is eloquent and inspiring so if you have read this far, go and read his post before continuing. I can’t come close to his eloquence but I can share my story.
I’m Jewish. I grew up firmly embedded in the Anglo-Jewish community. It’s not just about having some Jewish heritage or claiming a direct ascendent who arrived in the UK after experiencing persecution — this is the group of people and community that I was born into and grew up in. That doesn’t make the views or experiences of those who have Jewish parents/grandparents less relevant, but it is very relevant to my views, background, culture and who I am. I can comfortably say I am no longer a part of this community, I left it behind a long time ago, but these last few years, few months, few weeks, have made me realise that it isn’t as easy to walk away from one’s history, culture and upbringing as one might wish it to be.
I attended a Jewish primary school, a Jewish middle school and a Jewish secondary school. I went to a university (Leeds) with a strong Jewish student community and I can say I had few acquaintances and certainly very few friends who were not Jewish until I left university. I don’t see this as a positive. I think I would have benefited from not attending a faith school and having a broader exposure to other cultures without any doubt, but it wasn’t a choice I was able to make for myself at that point.
I intentionally detached myself from the Jewish community which was all I had known, after I left university. I really wanted to ‘escape’ from the insularity I felt. It can be very close with people knowing your parents, grandparents and family by just saying your name. It felt like someone would know someone who knows someone who knew you or your family — or that’s very much how it felt. Without too many details, I’d had a pretty miserable time through my teens and my relationship with parent/parental substitute was poor, at best. I wanted to leave the world I grew up in as far behind me as possible and that was very much the traditional British Jewish community.
I rarely mention it and wouldn’t see any reason to, until now. I have been, literally for years without mentioning to anyone that I was Jewish because I don’t need to. I am white and while I’m darker than the typical Brit (often considered to have a ‘southern European’ look or at least composite ‘immigrant’ look), it isn’t something that springs out. I have a typical ‘anglicised’ surname and a dull English first name so it’s not something I have to explain or justify and few people would make the assumption when they meet me.
The reason I explain now, although many have in far better ways than me, is that I felt it necessary to explain why I have become increasingly afraid, anxious and uneasy about the discussions around antisemitism in Labour. To the extent that I have forced myself to reconsider my relationship with a Jewish community I was part of but didn’t always feel a part of.
To me, this discomfort isn’t part of a political ‘agenda’ but it is a composite fear of compounded misunderstanding of the community I am part of, even if I haven’t chosen to be part of it. As I remember being told, frequently, in the end, they (anti-semites) won’t care if you identify as being part of the Jewish community or not. You can’t ever escape that. With more discussion and manifestation of overt anti-semitism, I increasingly see this. I can walk away from a community I very much grew up in but in the end, it doesn’t matter because it can’t leave me entirely.
I was a member of the Labour Party until Corbyn’s second vote – at which point I left – mostly to do with his and the Labour Party’s lack of movement on Brexit to be honest rather than any concerns, at that point anyway, with his record on anti-racism.
I shouldn’t need to write this but feel it is necessary to explain that I am no apologist for the current Israeli government. Netanyahu is a toxic force, carrying out actions which are oppressive and discriminatory. I don’t support him or the actions of his government regarding their treatment of Palestinians.
But I am a Zionist. There. It’s said. To me, and to many people I know and grew up among, Zionism is a natural wish for the existence of the State of Israel. It doesn’t mean the elimination of Palestinians, indeed, I’d love to see a successful and thriving Palestinian State but I can’t accept that belief in the existence of a State of Israel is inherently racist by the fact that it exists. The government it has now is racist and is wrong, but the concept and the existence of the state isn’t.
To those, including Corbyn, who regard Zionism as an anathema, as a word to be spat out alongside Nazi comparisons, this is going to be a difficult issue to resolve. To those seeing it as an inherently racist ideology that ‘bad Jews’ choose as opposed to those ‘noble’ anti-Zionist Jews who are lauded by the left, I’d ask them to reflect a moment.
Zionism for me, and many like me is not an ideology based on destruction and expansion, it is based on a complex history of a persecuted race who desire a homeland to exist. This does not mean this land has to exclude others who live there although the current government is oppressive, without doubt. To me, the inability to humanise ‘Zionists’ and to understand this definition is a blind spot for Corbyn and his ilk. I can desperately strive for peace in the Middle East while still fundamentally supporting the existence of an Israeli state, albeit a very, very different one to the one that exists now. One can be a Zionist and be wholly against settlements and expansion, wholly opposed to discrimination against any people regardless of religion, race and ethnicity. That is how I’d see myself, but the use of the word ‘Zionist’ has become an anathema in itself.
Within the community I grew up in, Israel was always there. It was the insurance of a people who had spent centuries running at the point of feeling they were well-integrated. I perceive a lot of the attacks on interpreting Corbyn’s othering of those who are Jewish Zionists as fundamentally lacking an understanding of the link between Zionism and mainstream Judaism. Of course there are Jews who are anti-Zionist but that is not accounting for the mainstream community and to build links with the community one has to make an effect to try to understand this without rancour, without denying the Palestinians the right to humane treatment and rights. Zionism to me isn’t about subjugation but is about creating space to co-exist peacefully. But to be a man of peace or a person of peace, one has to understand how language is interpreted, can be understood and where the bridges can be built without burning them all.
But I’m not here to be an apologist for an Israeli government I despise — would it matter if I were though? Is that how anti-racism works? However you may dislike my politics, if you discriminate on the basis of my race, that’s no less racist. If I challenge what I see as anti-semitism, you telling me to respond to the actions of the current Israeli government doesn’t make you less racist, whatever my reply is. The fact I have to explain that already ‘others’ me. I don’t think about difference until it is forced on me and I realise that so many of those strong and fervent anti-racist campaigners make exceptions for Jews.
It can feel that we Jews, are not allowed the privilege of defining how we experience discrimination and oppression because it doesn’t fit the model of other types of racism. But it is racism you are expressing when you consider Jews differently, or when you demand I express a view on Israeli occupation before you allow me a view on antisemitism.
Growing up as a Jew, and not as a secular Jew (because we were religious, growing up) at the time I did, the industrial extermination of Jews in Europe was not a story to tell in history classes or in the abstract. It was the story of the community, my friends had parents and grandparents who I met every day, every week, who had needed to run. This wasn’t a lesson we learnt in school. It was a lesson that was taught every hour of every day as we saw the tattooed numbers on the arms of our neighbours and family members. I don’t remember ‘learning’ about the Holocaust or the centuries of having to run because it just ‘was’. These were the stories discussed on Friday nights and Saturday lunches, the ones that just lived with us.
I remember my grandparents telling me that all ‘host’ countries turn against the Jews eventually. We are a race that can’t ever ‘settle’ beyond a couple of generations and nowhere will be safe, because eventually, eventually they will turn on the Jews. Jewish history is the history of moving from country to country as refugees in order to survive. Our history is a story of exile. I laughed and said that would never happen here. I never want to go to Israel. That’s not me. I laughed at how silly they were being, with their generational fear. But I’ve been struck by how ingrained this history and this generational memory is. It’s burst open over the past few weeks. This is why the fear isn’t to be laughed out or diminished. It isn’t put on to make Jeremy look bad. I feel it.
So when Jews talk of existential threats and having bags packed, it can sound odd, ridiculous and extreme to those on the outside. But as one who is not, or at least, was not on the outside, it is very real to me. This is what some of the people I grew up with and around are thinking. This is how we are feeling.
Of course, if your politics allow you to ignore that, I understand. But we can’t change that feeling of visceral fear which has been passed down through generations to a group of people who have been relentlessly persecuted. It isn’t gaming, it isn’t a game. It isn’t about an agenda — although others may choose to use it and interpret it as such, it doesn’t make the fear any less. It’s a feeling that cannot be switched off if it isn’t convenient for others.
One of the greatest sadnesses for me is seeing how the experience and the feelings of Jews who express fear, distress and feelings of being discriminated against have been diminished and ridiculed. While I’m sure there are some people acting in bad faith who are playing on this fear for political ends, ultimately you have a group and community who shouldn’t be subjected to additional gaslighting because you don’t like they have different opinions and that you need to invalidate their views because you disagree politically. That isn’t how antiracism works. It doesn’t need a grateful recipient.
I’m a Jew. I’m a social worker who has studied, learnt and I hope, practised in a way that challenges discrimination. I’m not perfect and I have lots to learn. I hope I will and do continue to learn when I do things wrong or offend. But if you cherish the values of practising, whatever role you have, in an anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive framework, consider that Jews, while far from homogeneous – are a minority group in the UK. Understand that reverting to centuries old antisemitic tropes will frighten us. Understand that we have a right to be heard and define our own experiences of racism. Try to listen to the genuine fear and distress we feel.
And if you have spoken up or taken a stand, thank you. It’s easy to take a stand against Boris Johnson because those you associate with, your leftie friends and colleagues will too and will cheer you for it. Taking a stand against elements of the left in defence of antisemitism when your social circles may criticise you can be more difficult. But we see it and we appreciate it.