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The Cudgel of Antisemitism
Is there a crisis of hatred against Western Jews, or are they just another casualty in the game of victimhood politics?
NOTE FROM GLENN GREENWALD: As is true of all the Outside Voices freelance articles that we publish here as part of what is essentially our op-ed section, we edit and fact-check the content to ensure factual accuracy, but our publication of an article or op-ed does not mean we agree with all or even any of the views expressed by the writer, who is guaranteed editorial freedom here. We realize the topic of this essay is controversial, but it is also being debated now more than ever.
In light of Ye's (formerly Kanye West) antisemitic rants, he has faced widespread condemnation from previous brand partners and a firewall of sponsorship terminations, which has “obliterated his net worth.” Just two weeks after, NBA star Kyrie Irving continues to assume significant personal financial punishments from paused sponsorships and his ongoing suspension from the NBA, after he initially failed to apologize for sharing a link to an antisemitic film; he now faces a long list of demands for his re-instatement — including completing education classes and donating money to the liberal activist group ADL — which ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith called “emasculating.” And now comedian Dave Chappelle — who has long faced accusations of transphobia — faces similar accusations of anti-semitism due to his monologue on the latest Saturday Night Live, which appeared to endorse, or at least spread, some of the premises regarding the power of Jews in media and entertainment which resulted in so many punishments for Ye and Irving. This article by Kriss, a British journalist (see his own Substack here), examines the use of anti-semitism accusations primarily within the context of British politics, and argues that — like other forms of bigotry accusations — they are often cynically weaponized to discredit political enemies and silence debate.
As always, anyone who wishes to submit a thoughtful reply to this article which contests some or all of the arguments may do so. We will publish quality and thoughtful responses in the spirit of open and free inquiry provided that the articles meet our editorial standards. As we explained when we launched this section of our Substack, the objective of Outside Voices is to offer to our readers high-quality, well-documented and well-reasoned articles in the spirt of fostering, rather than suppressing, important political controversies.
By Sam Kriss.
Here is a story about antisemitism on the British left. Last May, Israel fought a brief war in the Gaza strip: over ten days they destroyed forty schools, four hospitals, and nearly a thousand buildings; they also snuffed out around 250 human lives. I went to a protest against the war in central London, not because I really thought it could change anything, but out of the usual obscure sense of duty and guilt. It was a fun day out. There were thousands of us there, filling up the streets; I kept running into people I knew. Most of them were—like me—Jewish. Afterwards, I discovered that the protest had actually, according to much of the press, been an orgy of antisemitic hate. Mostly, this hate took the form of placards comparing Netanyahu to Hitler: these protesters didn’t get the memo that there is a list of political leaders it’s acceptable to compare to Hitler, and while it’s fairly long, Netanyahu’s name isn’t on it.
Probably the most revealing spark of outrage that day concerned a large inflatable puppet that appeared behind the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as he gave a speech. The effigy depicted a man wearing an Arab headdress, with curly devil horns, glowing red eyes, and a large, prominent, hooked nose. This was Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, Sheikh of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates: the previous year, Sheikh Khalifa had normalised relations between the UAE and Israel, so now the protesters were clearly depicting him as a monstrous Jew, using all the classic tropes of age-old antisemitism.
The horns: for centuries Jews were depicted as something not quite human, as animals or demons. Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses gave him a pair of goatish horns; in 1262 an ecclesiastical synod in Vienna ordered all Jews to wear a horned hat. The bloodstained hands: all those libels about Jews drinking Christian blood, kidnapping children to consume their blood, baking the blood into our matzos. The nose hardly needs explaining. Antisemitism was on the march in London, and once again Corbyn was associating himself with it; he had plopped himself in front of “the world’s most racist 10 foot tall inflatable” and said nothing. “He should be expelled from the Labour Party immediately. Not suspended. Expelled. As should any other Labour MP or member who attended.”
The truth was a little more prosaic, but nobody bothered correcting themselves. The effigy had actually been made for a much earlier protest against the UAE’s involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen. They had given Sheikh Khalifa bloodstained hands because his forces were killing Yemeni civilians. They’d given him devil horns because they didn’t like him and devils are generally considered to be bad. And as for the nose—well, Jews and Arabs are brothers, and Khalifa bin Zayed happened to have a large, prominent, hooked nose. That was all. As it turns out, most people are more concerned with the reality of the present than the symbols of the thirteenth century.
This doesn’t mean that there was no antisemitism at the march. In fact, there was: I witnessed it myself. Near the Israeli embassy, a group of young men had jumped up onto the wall around the Royal Garden Hotel, and one of them was screaming into a megaphone. “Fuck Israel!” he yelled, and a portion of the crowd chanted “fuck Israel!”in response. “Fuck the Zionists!” he yelled, and the crowd repeated that too. And then, hoarser than ever: “Fuck the Jews!”
And there it was. There is, famously, a line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. People have argued about exactly where that line is, but this man hadn’t just crossed it; he’d sped right over the thing as if it wasn’t even there. As statements of prejudice go, ‘fuck the Jews’ is pretty unambiguous. How did this make me feel? Not great! I was there in solidarity, and nothing wounds your narcissism more than having a nice gift thrown back in your face. For a moment, I felt very, very exposed. So maybe I should have done something about it. Maybe I should have edged my way through the crowd, got up close to the man with the megaphone, and snapped a photo of him. Spread it online: let’s find out his name, let’s find out his address. Does he have a job? Not any more! Or maybe he’s a student. We can change that. I could have dedicated myself to getting this man arrested and thrown in prison. The necessary laws are on the books. I could have made the whole thing about me, and my hurt feelings, rather than the people being bombed hundreds of miles away. But it’s hard to imagine how any this would have convinced the man with the megaphone that he was actually wrong about the Jews, that we’re not so bad after all.
It’s possible I’m being cowardly here; maybe I’m one of those Jews who would have walked meekly into the gas chambers. Luckily, there are braver people out there, people who will fiercely stand up to racism whenever they encounter it. Stephen Pollard is one of the leading figures in the British Jewish community: a kind of slimy, sentient ball of gefilte fish who was editor-in-chief of the Jewish Chronicle for over a decade and is still a frequent columnist across the British media. Around the same time I had my run-in with racism, he was writing about his own upsetting discovery: he had found that there was someone on Twitter who didn’t particularly like him. This, obviously, was antisemitism: nobody could dislike Stephen Pollard without being a bigot. His response was a stunning show of courage in the face of hatred: he found out where this person worked and “wrote to the company’s chairman, alerting him to his employee’s behaviour.” A few weeks later, the CEO phoned Pollard up to tell him that the employee was no longer working under his roof. “A man I believe to be a Jew hater,” Pollard concluded, “has suffered the consequences of his bigotry. That is what matters.”
Mr Pollard is, of course, an outspoken critic of cancel culture.
Jewish tradition holds that there is a recording angel who writes down all our good and evil deeds. When we die, we will face this angel, who holds the true book of our lives. We will have to account for what we have done in this world. I really, really want to hear Stephen Pollard explain that one.
Here in Britain, this sort of thing has been happening for a long time. Under the cover of fighting antisemitism, a small number of people—many of them not Jewish—have been given free rein to pursue their own ends: political agendas, personal vendettas, or just sheer sadism.
This really got going after 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn, a twinkly-eyed old socialist from the Labour back benches, was unexpectedly elected to the party’s leadership. Casting about for a suitable line of attack, the British press settled on the line that Corbyn and his movement were all antisemites. This wasn’t remotely true, but the chaos it spread helped utterly tank the movement and pitch the UK into its current perma-crisis. But the victims also include the vast majority of British Jews: people who will, for understandable historical reasons, tend to believe you if you say that their lives and safety are under threat. At the height of the hysteria, Jewish people I know were making plans to leave the country; they were convinced that if Corbyn were elected, he would suspend parliamentary democracy and round them up into camps. This was insane, but we had been lied to on an industrial scale. We were the acceptable collateral damage in someone else’s war.1
In October, I went to see Jews. In Their Own Words, a deeply weird and unsettling play-like object performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and put together by one Jonathan Freedland. Jonathan Freedland is an award-winning British columnist and my brother. He writes for publications including the Guardian (where he was opinion editor between 2014 and 2016), the Jewish Chronicle, and the New York Times; he also hosts a radio show on the BBC. His columns aren’t awful, in the way that much of the British media is awful, and I don’t even always disagree with them; I’m just not really sure why they exist. Jonathan Freedland’s seeming function is to repeat the opinions of centrist Guardian readers back to them every weekend. Most of the time he achieves this by simply summarising the week’s news with the equivalent of either a frowny or smiley face. The government did this, and it’s bad; the opposition said this, and it’s good. The man could be quite cheaply replaced with a trained pigeon that pecks at a big green button whenever it sees a picture of Keir Starmer. There is no ‘controversies’ section on his Wikipedia page.
As a side gig, Freedland writes bestselling thrillers, under the pseudonym Sam Bourne. One of them is about a diplomat wrestling with her conscience after she discovers a plot to assassinate an evil Donald Trump-like President. Another is about how Israel and Palestine finally make peace after finding the last will and testament of the Biblical patriarch Abraham, which decrees that neither Isaac nor Ishmael should have sole inheritance of the Holy Land, but that both should live together, and share.
I do not hate Jonathan Freedland, but I do fear him. Like I said, we are brothers. We are both nice middle-class Jewish boys from North London. We went to the same private school in Hampstead; we go to the same synagogue. We’re in the same general line of work, if you could call it work, and our bylines have appeared in some of the same publications. Sometimes I wonder how little would have to change for me to turn into someone like Jonathan Freedland. If I were just a little bit less obnoxious, a little less pretentious, less of a troll or an overgrown teenager—maybe I’d be like Jonathan Freedland now, with a head as soft as my cardigan, happily mumbling banalities for a living. There is a thin line between man and blob. But I don’t think I could ever, ever commit something like Jews. In Their Own Words.
The play is a ninety-minute re-enactment of interviews Freedland conducted with various British Jews, in which they talk about their own and their families’ experiences with antisemitism. It’s deeply weird and unsettling because something is obviously wrong with the way these stories have been put together, but nobody wants to mention it. Some of these people have parents or grandparents who survived or escaped the Holocaust; they talk movingly about the rising pitch of hatred, the deportations, the death camps—but then, when it’s time to talk about their own experiences, all they have to discuss are tweets. At multiple points in the play, a big screen is wheeled out so they can project a few unpleasant tweets for the audience to tut at. There are some exceptions: one of Freedland’s interviewees is an Iraqi Jew who saw, as a child, his fellow Jews hanged from lampposts, accused of being Israeli spies. Another was physically assaulted in the street. But for the rest, it’s just a litany of random comments from random social media accounts, over and over again. At first I simply wasn’t sure why I was supposed to care, but after a while I started to get angry. If it’s deeply offensive to compare Israel’s war crimes to the actions of the Third Reich—and maybe it is—then how much more offensive is it to raise the spectre of the Final Solution because someone on Twitter called you a dickhead?
According to the play’s promotional materials, “Jews have been talked about a lot in recent years. Now they get to speak for themselves.” This is a bizarre statement, especially when you consider that the interviewees include the Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson, the TV actress and columnist Tracy-Ann Oberman, the former Labour MP Luciana Berger, the current Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge, and the Financial Times editor Stephen Bush. Are these people voiceless? Are they subalterns that may or may not be able to speak? Whatever problems Jewish people might face, this is simply not one of them. But because we’re a minority group, apparently we should get to raise the same complaints as members of any other minority group: that we are structurally discriminated against, that we lack a voice, that we’re under-represented and abused. A theatre full of comfortably middle-class people get to enjoy imagining themselves as the wretched of the earth. It’s grotesque.
One of the more obnoxious strains of recent race thought is Afropessimism—basically, the notion that all of Western society and culture is founded on antiblackness, and its fundamental structures are set up to dehumanise black people and reduce them to slavery. Freedland wants to say the same thing about Jews. So we’re reminded that there’s an antisemitic blood libel in one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, that Shakespeare gave us the villainous Jew Shylock, and Charles Dickens had Fagin: the entire Western literary canon is an education in Jew-hatred! The deep grammar of our culture excludes and objectifies Jews; we are the permanent victims of society, victimised simply by the fact of being Jewish. There’s antisemitism in the air you breathe.2
Three long-dead writers is a pretty flimsy rail for this sort of conclusion. You could point out that actually, Jewish people have played a fairly active part in European literary culture, ever since 384 AD, when St Jerome consulted prominent rabbis for his Latin translation of the Bible. You could point out that in the works of Chaucer’s contemporary Boccaccio, all the Jewish characters are noble and admirable and smart. You could mention that our entire modern concept of the Western canon owes a lot to Harold Bloom, who grew up speaking Yiddish. My grandfather’s favourite work by Shakespeare was The Merchant of Venice; I think every Jew of his generation would have said the same. They didn’t moan about Shakespeare’s antisemitism; they simply claimed the play as their own, because this is our history too. We are not eternal outsiders. For better or worse, we helped build this world.
This strikes me as a much healthier attitude. But the approach preferred by Freedland and his gang has its seductions. It says that Chaucer and Shakespeare are part of the same thing that also produced the Nazis, and which is currently producing the mean tweets you choose to look at on your phone. A single object, antisemitism, homogenous through time. This allows you to do some things that would otherwise be difficult. It means that when you call up someone’s boss because they said something you didn’t like on social media, you’re actually preventing the Holocaust. You are not a bully. You are not the baddies. Everywhere is the Warsaw Ghetto, and everything you do is the revolt.
Among the many forms of antisemitism covered in the play, there was one that stuck out to me. It’s antisemitic to tell Jewish people that we’re making a big deal about nothing, or that we’re exaggerating things, or that it isn’t really so bad. It’s antisemitic to not believe us when we come forward with stories about the racism we’ve encountered. I think that maybe if this stuff is so hurtful, then maybe you ought not to lie.
The first shot in the UK’s antisemitism wars was fired at Oxford University. In 2016, a few months after Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, a former co-chair of the university’s Labour club alleged that it had become institutionally antisemitic: that members openly discussed “an international Jewish conspiracy,” that they insisted all Jews should have to publicly denounce Zionism or be removed, that they supported attacks on Israeli civilians, and that one had been disciplined by the university for following any Jewish students who complained around campus, shouting “filthy Zionist” at them. These claims were explosive. They were also untrue. Not one of them was ever substantiated, and multiple investigations failed to find any concrete evidence that anything of the sort had ever taken place. The story about students being followed and harassed is a proven fabrication: the accused student had never been the subject of disciplinary proceedings for antisemitism or anything else. But it didn’t matter; the narrative had already set in.
Around the same time, it was discovered that the Labour MP Naz Shah had once reposted a joke meme on Facebook, suggesting that Israel should be moved to the United States. The image originated with Professor Norman Finkelstein, who is Jewish, and whose parents were Holocaust survivors. That didn’t matter either; another Labour MP compared her to Adolf Eichmann. The party commissioned an internal report into allegations of institutional racism, which found that “the Labour party is not overrun by antisemitism.” That also didn’t matter. At the report’s launch, the veteran antiracist campaigner Marc Wadsworth witnessed the Labour MP Ruth Smeeth being handed one of his press releases by a Daily Telegraph journalist; he accused her of working “hand in hand” with the Tory press. Smeeth accused Wadsworth of spreading “vile conspiracy theories about the Jewish people.” I suppose the idea was that he was suggesting that she, Ruth Smeeth MP, was personally pulling the strings of the British media. In fact, Wadsworth had no idea that Smeeth was Jewish, but that didn’t matter either; he was expelled from the party.
All this was in just a few short months. There were hundreds of incidents like this in the years that followed, and almost all of them were manipulations, or exaggerations, or outright lies.3 But the sheer density of scandals seemed to convince a lot of people that something must be up. Maybe the party really does have a problem, maybe antisemitism really is rife—because they can’t all be false, can they?
But they can. This is just how numbers work. Say there’s a genetic disease that affects 1% of the population, and a test for the disease with a 90% accuracy rate. If you start testing everyone, that doesn’t mean 90% of the positive results you get will be accurate; it means 90% of the positive results will be false. In each case, there’s a 10% chance that the test has given you the wrong answer, but only a 1% chance that the person really has the disease. The antisemitism panic was a much, much worse test. If you create an environment in which people are empowered to make whatever accusations they like, with absolutely no penalty for lying, but strong negative consequences for even suggesting that some of these stories might, in fact, be untrue—well, you might get a few genuine cases of racism. But the overwhelming majority will be grasping psychopaths with a political agenda, or a personal grudge, or just a howling void at the core of their being demanding to be filled with someone else’s suffering.
Still, you can’t make these accusations against just anyone. There are some places these fearless defenders of the Jewish people will not go. Corbyn’s predecessor as leader of the Labour Party was Ed Miliband, who happens to be Jewish; during his five years at the post there were a few incidents that should have raised some eyebrows. Like the time a BBC interviewer called him a ‘North London geek.’ (Americans might be able to get a rough sense of what he meant by substituting the Upper West Side.) Antisemitic tropes! The weak, scrawny, effeminate Jew! Strangely, this did not kick off a similar moral panic. The Daily Mail published a deranged hit-job on his father, the great Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband, who they described as ‘the man who hated Britain.’ More tropes! The disloyal Jew, with his own secret affinities! The fascist fantasy of Judeo-Bolshevism! During Corbyn’s tenure, the Sun—which once declared that his ‘antisemitism is indisputable’—published (and then hastily deleted) a map of the ‘hard-left extremist network’ that had apparently taken over the Labour party. The map didn’t just feature an impressive number of Jews; one of its sources was a website called Aryan Unity, while another was the Millennium Report, whose articles carry headlines like ‘Is Lucifer the God of Judaism?’ Earlier this year, Keir Starmer used the Holocaust memorial in Berlin as the backdrop for a political campaign video. This sort of thing is generally frowned upon, but the same people who had taken any opportunity to paint Corbyn as an antisemite were now urging caution and restraint.
For years, these people had been telling us that antisemitism also exists on the left; what they really meant was that antisemitism on the left matters, and antisemitism from any other corner does not.
People in Freedland’s ideological corner tend to have a lot of anxiety about the rise of ‘post-truth’ politics, but when it comes to the antisemitism scandal they’re strangely resistant to facts. Already in 2017, the Campaign Against Antisemitism—not a particularly pro-Corbyn body—found that members and supporters of the Labour party were less likely to endorse antisemitic statements than the general public. That should have been the end of it, but the goalposts changed: as the fact-checkers were quick to point out, the problem wasn’t the actual number of antisemites, but the subjective impression among Jewish people that there were more of them around. The party must have failed to properly address the problem. And in a way, they had a point. This year, the independent Forde Inquiry into the scandal finally released its findings, and it confirmed that anti-Corbyn elements within the party had actively tried to expel left-wing party members for expressing any support for the Palestinians, while genuine cases of antisemitism were left hanging. They were trying to wreck Corbyn’s leadership: they wanted more racists in the party; they wanted the membership to seem like a mob of bigots and cranks. Jewish people were cannon fodder in a factional struggle waged by the party’s right wing. But when the report was published, absolutely nothing changed.
There are a few other inconvenient facts about antisemitism in the UK. Like the fact that in 2019, at the height of the hysteria, fully half of all antisemitism complaints received by the Labour Party came from one single person. This person also had a definition of antisemitism that encompassed things like ‘non-Jews sharing Guardian articles about Jewish issues.’
Or like the fact that Euan Philipps, one of the ringleaders of the panic, pretended to be Jewish by signing his emails with the name ‘David Gordstein.’
Or like the fact that Labour Party members were five times more likely to be investigated for antisemitism if they themselves were Jews.
I think the most revealing story in Freedland’s play is Luciana Berger’s. Berger is a former Labour MP, and despite being ideologically opposed to Corbyn’s leadership, she took a post in his shadow cabinet. But as her disagreements with the leadership became more public, and especially after she voiced her outrage over that stupid mural, she started getting flooded with nasty messages online. People threatening to behead her or throw acid in her face; people saying they knew where she lived and where her children went to school. And hundreds upon hundreds of tweets calling her a stupid selfish cynical capitalist Tory bitch.
Meanwhile, members of her own local party kept trying to pass no-confidence motions in her; they wanted to force her out of her seat and replace her with someone else. Maybe someone less Jewish. She couldn’t face constituency meetings. “I have nothing in common with these people,” she told Freedland. “There was no humanity in that room.” Berger had been in the Labour Party for decades; her great-uncle was a minister in the socialist Atlee government. But now the party had turned on her. She was pregnant through most of this ordeal; she told Freedland that she was worried that the stress was raising the cortisol levels in her blood and harming her unborn child. She quit the party in 2019.
Receiving mean tweets might not be the same as the Holocaust, but I do have some sympathy. I’ve been on the wrong side of Twitter myself, and it is a genuinely crushing experience. To be so deeply hated by people you’ve never met: it can break you, and it’s killed people before. In retrospect, one of the genuine weaknesses of the Corbyn movement was its willingness to get dragged along by the psychopathic logic of social media. There were thousands of members who seemed to spend all their political energy on insulting people online. They decided that they were in the right, and their cause was just, which meant they were free to be as cruel as they wanted to anyone they disliked. I know, because I was doing it too. Occasionally, people still try to pretend that online nastiness is a specifically left-wing problem, which it is not. But it’s something any socialist movement needs to avoid like the plague, and we did not. This stuff was bad for the movement and bad for our souls; whatever your politics, every second you spend on Twitter is making you pettier, stupider, and worse. It is poison, and if you have an account, you should stop reading and delete it this instant.
Here's the thing, though. Luciana Berger was the MP for Liverpool Wavertree, which includes some of the most impoverished parts of the country. Among her constituents were thousands of people who did not know, from week to week, whether they’d have enough money to feed their families. Around the time this scandal was unfolding, the unemployment rate in Liverpool peaked close to 20%. The city had suffered more damage from Tory austerity policies than anywhere else in the country, losing the equivalent of £816 in local government services for each resident. A newborn child is now twice as likely to die in Liverpool as it is in London. Might these people also be afraid? Might they also be stressed? Might they also have elevated cortisol levels in their blood?
When Berger says she has nothing in common with these people, she’s right. She is, like me, from a nice middle-class Jewish home in North London. She took the usual route to political office: a few years in the National Union of Students, followed by a few years at a consulting firm. The party dropped her into an extremely safe seat in a city that has always voted Labour. And then she spent a good chunk of her political career complaining that the people there were being mean to her.
The people of Liverpool Wavertree did not elect Luciana Berger to grandstand about her personal victimhood; they elected her to represent their interests in Parliament. When her vote share rose by over 10% in the 2017 election, it was because Corbyn had promised to bring them decent jobs and schools and healthcare and to help them build a life that could be lived with dignity. They voted Labour because children were dying. Instead, they discovered that they’d empowered Luciana Berger to start attacking Corbyn over a mural. So they tried to replace her with someone who would actually do their job—because they have a right to democratic representation, and Luciana Berger does not have a right to be that representative. And now, someone playing Luciana Berger can stand on a stage before an audience of other nice middle-class Jewish people in a theatre in London, and tell us that the people she represented were something less than human, and they hated her because she’s a Jew.
It's true that there are people who hated Berger because she’s a Jew. One man was imprisoned for two weeks after sending her an antisemitic message, another for two years for writing antisemitic articles, another spent 27 months in jail for sending her death threats, another was jailed for eight months for plotting to murder her. All of these people were neo-Nazis. None of them was part of the Labour Party.
Of course, all of this is in the past now. The British left was utterly crushed in the 2019 election, and it probably won’t be a significant political force for another generation. The antisemitism scandal didn’t exactly help matters, but in the end the movement was defeated by its own squabbling and incoherence, and its own failure to engage the support of the working class. Still, they’ve won, the Jonathan Freedlands of the world. Are they happy? Of course not. They never are.
As I write, the current panic is whirling around the rapper Kanye West, who’s been removed from social media and locked out of most of his business relationships after saying some stupid things online about Jews. People I know keep posting messages of “support for my Jewish friends and the Jewish people.” Serious types keep lining up to denounce this unacceptable antisemitism. We’re standing up to Kanye West! But whatever else Kanye might be, he is also not well. He doesn’t just have some antisemitic views; he appears to think that he is in direct communication with God, and that fake children have been planted inside his home. Does this excuse what he said? I don’t care! This is not a question that makes sense!4 But in light of Kanye’s madness, the mass freakout seems pretty unhinged itself. Is this where we are now? Is this what threatens us? Are we bravely standing up to a man in the middle of a serious mental crisis?
I do not want a world in which everyone who deploys some kind of antisemitic trope is swiftly punished for their opinions; I want a world in which I do not have to care. If Kanye doesn’t like me, that’s his business—he can’t stop me enjoying his music anyway, and nor can any of the outraged and the appalled, any more than they can stop me reading Shakespeare or Chaucer.
There are people in the world facing serious problems, and some of them are Jews. There are places where people shoot up synagogues with automatic weapons, but I do not live in one of them. There are places where millions of Jewish people live in poverty, but I don’t live in one of those either. (Most of the world’s truly impoverished Jews live in Israel. Funny how these things work out.) As a British Jew in the twenty-first century, I am not oppressed, or discriminated against, or a victim of racism. I do not need a maudlin theatre piece to tell me about my own experience. I do not need a cultural terror campaign to keep me safe. The closest I come to oppression isn’t at the hands of the people who hate Jews, but the people who claim to love us.
Antisemitism discourse is a weapon. It’s pointed at Palestinians, and the left, and any number of other convenient targets, but in the end it’s always also pointed at Jews. It tells us that we should be afraid, that we should constitute ourselves as victims, that our enemies are everywhere, and that every loser who downloads a few dumb ideas from the wrong corner of the internet is a Hitler in waiting. Here in Britain it’s already done its work. The Jewish community has been cowed and defeated, huddling inwards on itself. And now the people who brought us here celebrate their victimhood on the London stage. Shande far di goyim! Are you not ashamed?
Sam Kriss is a London-based writer. You can read more from him on his Substack, Numb at the Lodge
To be fair, we weren’t the only ones. Shortly after Corbyn was elected, there was a brief attempt to paint him as a Bernie Bro-type sexist. It didn’t last long, since women make up the majority of the Labour membership; they weren’t fooled. But there was also a parallel–and much less public–effort to paint the Labour party as institutionally Hinduphobic. In 2019, the party criticised India for its human rights abuses in the region, and called for a UN-monitored referendum that would allow Kashmiris to decide their own fate. Afterwards, an alliance between the Conservative party, India’s pogromist BJP, and a few prominent self-appointed community leaders tried to terrify British Hindus with the exact same bullshit that had been heaped on the Jews.
This whole complex of attitudes isn’t too far off what gets called wokeness. In the play, our interviewees repeatedly complain that social-justice types will be moved to defend every protected group except Jews; another prominent British Jew, David Baddiel, wrote an entire book called Jews Don’t Count complaining that antisemitism is taken seriously enough by lefty culture warriors. But it works the other way too. There’s an entire class of pundit that seems to spend their entire time launching invectives against the evils of woke identity politics—until Israel starts bombing civilians in Gaza. When that happens, all bets are suddenly off: international politics becomes a series of microaggressions, and a war in the Middle East is really just about the writer’s hurt feelings.
I won’t bore you with all the pedantic details of every fake microscandal, but there’s one that’s worth going into: that stupid fucking mural. This was the one that caused a lot of people who’d previously held firm against the tide of bullshit to start giving in, but I honestly do not see why. In 2012, a street artist called Mear One announced on Facebook that one of his works was being removed from a wall in London. Jeremy Corbyn replied: ‘Why?’ The mural depicted bankers with big noses playing Monopoly on the backs of some bowed, wretched workers. It was a tacky, schlocky, godawful painting, and it’s unacceptable that the leader of the Labour Party should have such bad taste in art. Is it antisemitic? Maybe! I don’t know exactly what ideas are living between the ears of some street artist who calls himself Mear One, and I don’t see any reason to care. He is not important to me. But I do know that if Corbyn were himself an antisemite, he would not have asked why the mural was being removed. He would have seen the bankers with their big noses, and he would have understood. But the Jews that Corbyn knows about best are not bankers in bow ties, they’re the Jewish left-wing activists he’s worked with for the past forty years. He saw generic rich people, and not a secret Jewish conspiracy. So yes, maybe he was blind to some offensive imagery, but he was blind to it because this stuff is simply not part of his world. May we all have such weaknesses.
I still think it’s a tragedy, because Kanye had a particular kind of genius, and in the end his antisemitism is an index of his creative decline. He will never make a truly great album again: resenting Jews is the last refuge of the miserable failed artist. Nobody liked Hitler’s hideous watercolours, so he hated the Jews. Nobody wanted to see Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s treacly ballet, so he hated the Jews. There have been great artists who were also antisemites–Céline was one–but their art is always made of failure, bile and resentment. It’s for grudgeful losers; as Engels once wrote, ‘antisemitism betokens a retarded culture.’ (The people who are best at this stuff are usually, like Philip Roth or Antonin Artaud, themselves Jews.) Kanye, when he was still the most interesting person in pop culture, was doing something else; he was the last twenty-first century artist with a real sense of mad mythopoeic grandeur, a figure like Blake or Nietzsche. (Blake: ‘If Humility is Christianity, you,. O Jews! are the true Christians.’ Nietzsche: ‘I am just having all antisemites shot.’) Petty resentment is fatal to any grand project. Even Ezra Pound ended up admitting it: ‘The worst mistake I made was that stupid suburban prejudice of antisemitism.’ Instead of freaking out over Kanye’s statements, maybe we should simply mourn one of the great talents of our time.
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