It Wasn’t me, Sir, it Was the Reservoir What Done it

Paul Klee, Vulgar Comedy, 1922, lithograph, 21.5 x 27.3 cm

The Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism Tries its Hand at Satire: On “Labour and Antisemitism: A Crisis Misunderstood” by Ben Gidley, Brendan McGeever and David Feldman

This is not the first time the colleagues at the helm of the Pears Institute for The Study of Antisemitism have commented publicly on the transformation of the British Labour Party into Europe’s largest antisemitic organization. In 2016, its director, David Feldman, not only co-chaired the Chakrabarti whitewash but expressly welcomed its findings. In the summer of 2018, against the backdrop of the massive political strife and campaigning occasioned by Labour’s initial refusal to adopt the IHRA definition and the examples listed in the guidance that comes with it “in full”, Feldman and Brendan McGeever thought nothing was more appropriate to the moment than to publish an op-ed in Haaretz highlighting what they consider to be the massive shortcomings of that definition. Now, they are using the end of Corbyn’s leadership to flog what must surely be a satirical account of the “real” problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party (and on the left more generally).

The ground-breaking corrective suggestion Gidley, McGeever and Feldman bring to the table is the urgent call henceforth to focus not on antisemites, as the critics of Labour antisemitism have foolishly done, but instead on antisemitism. To the uninitiated, this might suggest that, at least in the first instance, we should prioritize measures that might help place a taboo on antisemitic statements in public and prevent antisemitic acts wherever possible over endless and often futile attempts to second-guess what exactly goes on in the hearts and minds of those who make such statements and engage in such activities.

This would reflect a fundamental, equally valid and frustrating insight, namely, that antisemitic stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in Western (and, incidentally, in Muslim) society, that trying genuinely to eradicate them is, at least as long as the current social order persists, almost certainly a hopeless undertaking. From this follows the need to distinguish between attempts to do something about the prevalence of antisemitic attitudes, on the one hand, and against the public impact of those attitudes, on the other. The conflation of these two aspects is arguably the single greatest problem currently rendering most attempts to combat antisemitism futile. Pragmatically speaking, preventing people from expressing and acting upon their antisemitic urges and assumptions is obviously much more important than trying to change their attitudes. To be sure, it would be brilliant to live in a society where nobody understands why antisemitic stereotypes ever arose in the first place because they no longer make sense to anyone and have lost all ability to help people interpret their position in the world. Meanwhile, in the real world, the impact of antisemitism needs to be curtailed, and that means keeping a lid on what antisemitism there may be. For the most part (and with obvious exceptions), modern Western societies have fared fairly well by allowing the populace to think about Jews whatever they like, provided they keep their mouths shut in public discourse and do not act upon whatever antisemitic notions they may hold. Many of the current controversies regarding antisemitism result from the fact that this taboo is increasingly crumbling.

Distinguishing Between Antisemites and Antisemitism: The IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

It is against this backdrop that the IHRA definition of antisemitism and the guidance that accompanies it set out to do precisely what Gidley, McGeever and Feldman seem to be calling for. It essentially follows the model of legal codification and sets out in generic form the sorts of statements and actions considered unacceptable because they are antisemitic. It does not purport to encompass everything there is to say about antisemitism nor is its purpose to explain where antisemitism comes from, when, where, why and with whom it takes, how the historical and social seedbed on which it draws might be eliminated or what goes on in the mind or heart of each individual making antisemitic statements or engaging in antisemitic activities. No matter how complex your motivation, how rich or impoverished your inner life may be: you are expected to take responsibility for your actual utterances and actions, and if you act in an antisemitic way you are liable to suffer whatever sanctions society puts in place to deal with people who do so.

In this respect, the definition operates just like any other legal codification of officially anathematized forms of conduct. The very fact that legal norms exist tends to bear witness to the fact that a significant number of individuals in any given society cannot be relied upon to conform to more or less widely accepted social norms (not to kill, not to rape etc.) unless they are threatened with punishment. Moreover, neither the threat of punishment nor the punishment itself will necessarily change the convictions of the potential or actual perpetrators. Prohibitions rarely eliminate the conduct they are directed against, let alone the underlying material causes and social and cultural factors that favour or unwittingly condone that conduct. They necessarily need to be specific and in so doing reduce the complexity of the problem they seek to address. In some cases, prohibitions are kept on the statute book even though the conduct in question is no longer actually prosecuted because the legislators feel the need to send a moral message. Plaintiffs occasionally turn out to have been wrongly accused and we know that miscarriages of justice cannot be ruled out. I could go on.

Yet few would infer from these generic shortcomings that the prohibition of murder or rape is really rather useless because it does not fulfil all these additional functions—and yet, when it comes to the much maligned IHRA definition of antisemitism, these are apparently all valid criticisms that render it, at best, useless and suggest that its motives are most likely sinister. Feldman and his colleagues have played a prominent role in articulating this critique. Indeed, as I mentioned at the outset, Feldman and McGeever used the backdrop of a summer’s worth of strife and campaigning occasioned by Labour’s attempt to jettison parts of the IHRA definition to present their fundamental critique of the definition to a wider public.

Impact vs. “Outcomes”: Structural Antisemitism

One of their central criticisms is that the IHRA definition does not cater for a concept of “institutional antisemitism” that would allow us to focus on “outcomes”. Now, you and I may be inclined to surmise that the “outcomes” of antisemitic attitudes are antisemitic statements in public and antisemitic acts, i.e., their practical impact. But if the IHRA definition is, as we saw, all about this impact and yet, according to Feldman and McGeever, does not take “outcomes” into consideration, “outcomes” must obviously be something else. For an explanation not of what “outcomes” are, but at least of how he understands the concept of institutional antisemitism, we can turn to a paper on “Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism in Britain” that Feldman gave in Berlin in 2013. There too, he stressed that the concept of institutional antisemitism focuses “not on the mind of the perpetrator but on outcomes”. To offer a definition of the concept of institutional antisemitism Feldman then relied—oh irony of ironies!—on a formulation by David Hirsh. With reference to the prominent role of the BDS movement within the British union of university teachers Hirsh, Feldman noted, had written: “‘Nobody in the union hates Jews; it isn’t that sort of antisemitism. Institutional antisemitism….create[s] an environment within the union which is hostile to Jews, even if nobody intends to create such an environment.’” If you believe that, you’ll believe anything!

I have to confess that this was the first time I had knowingly come across the concept of institutional antisemitism (or institutional racism, for that matter) defined in these terms (and I certainly never have used nor would ever use it in this sense). It is entirely possible, of course, that this is the “correct” definition and, as Feldman and his colleagues like to say, words matter. But then so does usage. It is obviously their prerogative to chide non-sociologists and other commoners and mortals for not using the term correctly. If they have a lot of spare time on their hands and nothing better to do, they are also welcome to launch a campaign to try and get the general public to use the term correctly.

However, I do not believe for one moment that people generally use this term to denote the unintentional reproduction of racism or antisemitism. As far as antisemitism is concerned, this is obvious not least from the fact that most of the activists who have campaigned steadfastly against antisemitism in the Labour party in recent years have regularly stressed both the bad faith of individuals making antisemitic statements or engaging in antisemitic acts and the structural antisemitism of the party as a whole. However loose or wrong this usage of the term may have been from the vantage of professional sociologists, it has been deployed primarily to refer to an institutional culture that makes it impossible to deal with individual miscreants because those who would need to do so in fact tacitly or not so tacitly approve of their misdeeds.

Activists repeatedly mocked Corbyn and his supporters, suggesting that, if antisemitism was really as alien to them as they claimed, they must surely be the most unlucky non-antisemites the world has ever seen, given how consistently they have put their foot in it and associated with and/or defended individuals and organizations whose statements and conduct were unmistakably antisemitic. I obviously cannot rule out that there are significant numbers of serious non-antisemitic people out there who, by calling Labour institutionally antisemitic, wanted to point to the fact that they thought the leadership under Corbyn was entirely the plaything of all the antisemitism being articulated within the party, but I have to say that I would be surprised if it were so.

Of course, all this ultimately hinges on the crucial issue of personal responsibility. While I appreciate that the postmodern assault on the enlightenment tradition has done much to promote simplistic and undialectical ways of understanding the world, I would have thought that any scholar worth their salt would concur that human action is the outcome of a complex process involving structural factors, social processes and individual choices. To be sure, one might squabble about the exact admixture of these factors in any given case, but any attempt to disavow one or more of these factors beyond any reasonable measure must surely be implausible. Driven above all else by what Adorno described as the new categorical imperative foisted on humanity by Auschwitz, I instinctively balk at the suggestion that structural and social factors fundamentally crowd out personal choices and responsibility. Even when all the circumstances, all the individual’s vulnerabilities and all the various forms of peer group pressure etc. are taken into account, individuals make choices and need to take responsibility for those choices. Moreover, all other things being even, overly structuralist accounts inevitably fail to explain why some individuals do not conform even though they are subject to the same structures and circumstances as those who do and may face serious consequences as a result.

Similarly, I am not aware of any serious scholars of antisemitism who would deny that a dialectical relationship exists between any given concrete expression of antisemitism and a backdrop of often long established antisemitic stereotypes. There is always a dialectic of continuity and discontinuity, of the generic and the specific at play here. To be sure, well established antisemitic imagery and stereotypes can predispose individuals to find antisemitic explanations of how the world works more plausible than others, but here too the question always remains why, of those encountering the same circumstances and explanatory options, some opt for antisemitic solutions and others do not. This is what among more seasoned leftists is known as the problem of objectively necessary false consciousness. The existing order depends on most of us imagining that it is motivated by intentions other than those it is actually motivated by, yet the very fact that it is possible to see through this ruse already indicates that the organized delusion is not inescapable. Why some understand this when others do not is one of the eternal mysteries for which, if we are perfectly honest, nobody has ever been able to offer a genuinely satisfactory answer.

Against this backdrop, Gidley, McGeever and Feldman’s call to shift our focus from the antisemites to the antisemitism and from Labour antisemitism to antisemitism as “one resource among others within British culture” is, firstly, about as old hat as hat can be old, and their unmitigated, utterly undialectical structuralism, secondly, is so ridiculous that it simply cannot be meant seriously, it must be satirical (or perhaps it’s a trick to see whether anyone is actually paying attention). It is born of a bizarre desire to turn this “resource” into the active subject of antisemitism and the individuals engaging in antisemitic practices into its inanimate objects.

Now you all think I’m exaggerating, of course, so let me point you to Gidley, McGeever and Feldman’s statement that “some responses to the crisis of global capitalism” function as “a breach through which the reservoir of antisemitism can flow”. One might have thought that it is the content of the reservoir rather than the reservoir itself that “flows”, but either way it is clear that antisemitism is understood here as an animate force that acts independently of the actual subjects. (I can already hear the objection: “ok, so that is what we wrote, but not what we meant”.) Here, the “reservoir” is the subject of antisemitism, much as the reservoir of satirical convention presumably flowed through Gidley, McGeever and Feldman when they wrote this bizarre text.

The Cherry on the Satirical Cake: Taking Cherry-Picking to a Whole New Level

Satire often works by taking a handful of facts out of context and exaggerating them to such an extent that reality appears in a new light. The purely ornamental use of statistics by Gidley, McGeever and Feldman certainly falls into this category, provided one has a very liberal concept of reality. For illustrative purposes, let’s look at this passage:

If we ask where these negative attitudes are most likely to be found, we can turn to polls conducted by YouGov in 2017 and 2019. … the surveys suggest that Labour Party supporters are no more likely than Conservative Party supporters to assent to an antisemitic proposition. In fact, in the case of the 2017 survey, Conservative Party voters were more likely to agree with antisemitic opinions. In 2019 the picture was more mixed, in part because the roster of questions was extended. Nevertheless, in that year 15 per cent of Conservative voters surveyed agreed that having a connection to Israel makes Jewish people less loyal to Britain than other British people, whereas among Labour voters the figure was lower at 11 per cent. Conversely, 16 per cent of Labour voters agreed that ‘compared to other groups Jewish people have too much power in the media’, whereas among Conservative voters the figure was 14 per cent. The broad picture is clear, however. A significant minority of supporters of both main political parties assent to antisemitic stereotypes and prejudices.

Where to begin?

  • Let us begin with: In 2019 the picture was more mixed, in part because the roster of questions was extended. This extension consisted of a whole new section comprising questions designed specifically to capture Israel-related antisemitism as described by the IHRA definition, i.e., the form of antisemitism most likely to be particularly widespread among Labour supporters and leftists in general. Presumably because they reject the IHRA definition and like to worry that legitimate criticism of Israel might all too often be misdiagnosed as Israel-related antisemitism, Gidley, McGeever and Feldman have simply disregarded this part of the survey altogether. None too surprisingly, Labour voters were less likely than Tory voters to agree with more traditional antisemitic statements and more likely to agree with expressions of Israel-related antisemitism.
  • However, this does not imply a simple equivalence. Labour supporters were not only 41.3 percent more likely than Tory supporters to agree with expressions of Israel-related antisemitism, they were also 42.1 per cent less likely to reject such statements (which may seem obvious but, as we will see, massive numbers of Labour supporters also responded with “don’t know”). Conversely, while Tory supporters were 32.8 per cent more likely to agree with traditional antisemitic statements, Labour supporters were in fact less likely (though only by a statistically negligible 1.3 percent) to disagree with these statement. Overall, the share of Labour supporters agreeing with expressions of Israel-related antisemitism was 46.8 per cent higher than the share of Tory supporters agreeing with traditional antisemitic statements, but Labour supporters actually rejected traditional antisemitic statements marginally less often than their Tory counterparts.
  • Given the sensitive nature of the issue, it is hardly surprising that the number of “don’t know” responses was considerable both in relation to traditional and Israel-related antisemitism. It is, however, 43.2 percent higher in relation to Israel-related antisemitism and in both instances Labour supporters responded with “don’t know” 23 per cent more often than Tory supporters. This surely raises very serious questions about the extent to which Labour supporters sought to avoid giving (what they assumed were) socially undesirable answers.
  • All the figures discussed so far refer to those who “strongly agree” or “tend to agree”, on the one hand, and to those who disagree “strongly” or “tend to disagree”, on the other. It is worth pointing out that only 34.2 percent of the Tory-supporting respondents and only 22.8 percent of their Labour counterparts categorically rejected the statements expressing Israel-related antisemitism. Conversely 33.8 of the Labour supporters and 27 per cent of the Tory supporters categorically rejected traditional antisemitic statements. While the share of Tory supporters categorically rejecting Israel-related antisemitism and of Labour supporters categorically rejecting traditional antisemitism is more or less identical, the share of Tory supporters categorically rejecting traditional antisemitism, i.e., the form of antisemitism to which they are evidently more susceptible, exceeds the share of Labour supporters categorically rejecting Israel-related antisemitism by 18.4 per cent.
  • Just to avoid readers thinking that the statements supposedly indicating Israel-related antisemitism were probably perfectly innocuous and the whole thing is a setup, here are three examples: of the Labour-supporting respondents, 36 per cent thought that “Israel treats the Palestinians like the Nazis treated the Jews”; only 52 per cent of them agreed that “Israel is right to defend itself against those who want to destroy it”; and only 37 per cent felt able to agree with the statement that they would be “comfortable spending time with people who openly support Israel”.
  • The same study also found that “antisemitism on the far-left now exceeds antisemitism on the far-right” (p. 3). Of the far-left respondents, 60 per cent agreed that Israel treats the Palestinians like the Nazis treated the Jews. Two thirds of the Corbyn-supporting respondents agreed with up to three, the remaining third with four or more antisemitic statements (p. 4).

But, hey, this is satire, and I’m the first to admit that Gidley, McGeever and Feldman’s handling of statistics does indeed offer us a new perspective on something. Whether that something is reality is another question altogether.

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