The text below consists of the notes for my introduction to the meeting on anti-Semitism organised by Don’t Divide Us (DDU) and the Equiano Project. It took place at the JW3 centre in London on 11 December. Alka Sehgal Cuthbert chaired while the other speakers were Stephen Pollard, Khadija Khan and Frank Furedi. A video of the entire event is available at the foot of the article.
Since I am the first person to speak in the first DDU meeting on anti-Semitism I would like to discuss how racism directed against Jews relates to DDU’s mission. What it calls its common sense approach to racism.
I should say that I am not doing this in any official capacity. Alka (chairing) is the director of DDU and I know Stephen and Khadija are on the advisory council. This is my take as someone who supports DDU’s mission.
What I want to argue is that DDU’s core beliefs are important both to an understanding of anti-black racism and anti-Semitism. That is not to say they the two forms of racism are identical. They are both types of racial thinking but they have different characteristics.
So what are DDU’s core beliefs?
I see them very much in the tradition of Martin Luther King (1929-1968) and his “I have a dream” speech of 60 years ago.
That is in particular a colour blind approach to racism. Not to say there are no differences between, for example, black people and white people but they can be transcended. King famously argued that people should be judged not by the colour of their skin but the content of their character. He certainly knew there were big social divisions between black and white in America in the 1960s but he thought they could be overcome.
The flip side of that is a rejection of what passes for anti-racism today. That is the approach consistent with identity politics. It is the exact opposite of King’s approach. Rather than transcend racial divisions it seeks to entrench them. It says there is a hierarchy of oppression with those with white privilege at the top and people of colour at the bottom.
I like to think of this supposed anti-racism as typified by the award-winning 2020 TV documentary on “The School That Tried to End Racism” (Channel 4). It focused on a group of year seven pupils (11 to 12 year olds). That involved a group of anti-racist consultants going to a mixed school and telling white people they are privileged and the black pupils that they are oppressed.
It is hard to think of an approach that is more likely to entrench divisions and disincentivise black pupils form trying to get on as they face insurmountable barriers related to institutional racism.
How does all this related to anti-Semitism?
Perhaps the least bad consequence – and it is still pretty bad – is that those who uphold this view become blind to anti-Semitism. Since Jews are deemed as white and privileged so, in the view, they cannot be the victims of racism.
I could spend the whole meeting giving examples but let’s take just one. Diane Abbott (Labour MP for Hackney North) in her letter to the Observer in April 2023. In it she suggested Jews did not historically suffer from racism. So she referred to apartheid South Africa and slavery as examples of [anti-black] racism but somehow the Holocaust – in which six million Jews were systematically slaughtered – passed her by.
Now if you accepted her premise – and I should emphasise I did not – then her argument made sense. From her perspective Jews were not the victims of racism. The Holocaust from this viewpoint is just another example of white-on-white violence. An instance of the horrible things that whites do to each other. She did apologise after the furore but the view she expressed in her original letter is common among those who promote contemporary “anti-racism”.
But it is worse than that.
Because you can easily draw anti-Semitic conclusions from the premises of identity politics. You can conclude that Jews, as a largely white and successful community, are the epitome of privilege. From this perspective Jews thrive at the expense of people of colour.
This can easily be a rationalisation of a new form of anti-Semitism. Jews have to be opposed in this view because they are the personification of privilege. It is another example of what I have called the radicalism of fools. It gives a theoretical justification for a new form of anti-Semitism.
[ This view is sometimes extended to Israel. So Israel the personification of white privilege over the Palestinians who are deemed to be people of colour. Black Lives Matter so, in this view, Palestinian Lives Matter too. This approach is based on taking a dubious approach to racism in western societies and imposing it on the fundamentally different conflict between Israel and the Palestinians].
In conclusion, I would argue that we should go back to the Martin Luther King approach in his famous 1963 speech. His goal, as I said at the beginning, was to transcend social divisions rather than entrench them.
And it is often forgotten that his speech did not just refer to black and white but to what he called "all of God’s children". I wouldn’t use the religious language but I agree with his conclusions. The goal should be to transcend racial divisions. That is not just between black and white but, as he said also, between Jew and gentile, Protestant and Catholic.
And that means resisting identity politics. Because rather than opposing racist ideas its impact is to reinforce racial thinking and strengthen racism.
The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.
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